Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The 7th Day of Christmas - What Is The Christmas Season, And Why Does It Matter?

Antique Angel tree-topper at Principium et Finis World Headquarters
   Happy 7th Day of Christmas!  What with all this talk about The Twelve Days of Christmas, one might get the impression that Christmas ends after Epiphany (traditional date January 6th, the thirteenth day after Christmas Day itself).  In fact, the Church's official Christmas Season extends until the Baptism of The Lord, which is the Sunday after Epiphany, and in some places (specifically, Eastern Europe), the informal celebration continues until the Feast of the Presentation on February 2nd.  During his pontificate, Pope St. John Paul II celebrated Christmas until the Presentation, and Pope Benedict XVI did the same; I haven't heard whether Pope Francis has followed suit (we do so in our home, in keeping with my Lovely Bride's Polish heritage . . . or, at least, that's our excuse).

     The entire Christmas Season, then, is like a series of ripples of decreasing intensity emanating from the Feast of the Nativity itself on December 25th.  Christmas Day is the first day in the Octave of Christmas, a period of eight days, all solemnities (a solemnity is a liturgical feast of the highest rank), culminating in The Solemnity of Mary Mother of God on January 1st; January 2-5 fill out the rest of the Twelve Days, but are not official feast days; the days between Epiphany (traditionally January 6th, now officially the 2nd Sunday after the Nativity) and the Baptism of Our Lord on the following Sunday are included in the Christmas Season, but are observed in a much more low-key way.  Those of us who just aren't ready to let go of Christmas can privately follow the Eastern European tradition and continue until February 2nd, but the Liturgical Calendar has already moved on.

     There are some people who don't see the point of all this complexity: why not just celebrate Christmas and be done with it?  But the Liturgical Calendar is not just about commemorating past events: it's about experiencing the events of Salvation History in our own lives.  Big events require a period of preparation, such as Advent (and any of us who have lived in a household expecting a baby know how busy the preparations become in those last few weeks); likewise, the excitement and celebration gradually recede after the event, as life slowly returns to a routine.  We can’t just switch it on and off in a day or two.

     Today, the seventh day of the Octave of Christmas, we're still in celebration mode: the Christmas candles are burning, the tree is still blazing with lights (you can see a picture of the  Principium et Finis World Headquarters Official Christmas Tree here), and the joyful sounds of Christmas Carols still fill the air.  Speaking of which, here are Hayley Westenra and Aled Jones singing Silent Night:

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The 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 recently ran across at our cathedral 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!

Monday, December 29, 2014

The 5th Day of Christmas - Angels We Have Heard On High

Happy 5th Day of Christmas!  For very many people, it’s back to work in a serious way today; after Christmas and the weekend, it’s a Monday not so different from any other.  For the Christian, however, it’s still a holiday (that is, a Holy Day), a Solemnity in the Octave of Christmas.  Even if nobody else seems to notice, you have every reason to go about your business humming “Gloria in excelsis Deo!”  Here’s a Little Something to help you along.  Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Sunday Snippets - A Catholic Carnival & The 4th Day of Christmas 2014

     Merry 4th Day of Christmas! And welcome to Sunday Snippets – A Catholic Carnival; this is a weekly gathering of Catholic bloggers who share their posts for the week in a spirit of right good fellowship.  The main site is here, at This That and the Other Thing where our hostess RAnn calls us together around her wassail bowl to sing Christmas Carols into the night.  Well, in a virtual way, anyway.

The Flight Into Egypt by Bartolome Esteban Murillo
     Today we celebrate the Fourth Day of Christmas, which is usually the Feast of the Holy Innocents.  This day commemorates King Herod’s slaughter of every male child two years old and younger in Bethlehem  in an attempt to snuff out the Messiah that he learned had been born there.  This year, however, since the date of Holy Innocents falls on the Sunday after Christmas, it is being suppressed to make way for the Feast of the Holy Family. 
     The Change certainly makes for a more upbeat post.  Normally, I would make the connection between the murder of the Holy Innocents two thousand years ago and the wholesale massacre of unborn children through abortion today.  I might also mention that even those youngsters who have dodged the abortionist are robbed of their Holy Innocence by our pornified pop culture, causing all manner of suffering throughout their lives, and contributing in a significant way to all sorts of social pathologies.
     Happily, thanks to the Feast of the Holy Family, I don’t need to write that post.  It is interesting, however, that the two different feasts are really different sides of the same coin.  The Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus is a model of God’s plan for the family; the slaughter of the Holy Innocents underscores how far we need to go, right now, to adhere to that model.  It is likewise interesting that one of the few places in Scripture where we see the Holy Family in action is the same passage from Matthew’s Gospel that describes the Holy Innocents:

And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they [the Magi] departed to their own country by another way. Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, "Out of Egypt have I called my son." Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. (Matthew 2:12 -16)

Joseph, like fathers and fatherhood itself  today, is often overlooked and forgotten.  In the passage above, however, he is clearly the leader of the family.  Like his Old Testament namesake, and the Wise Men from the East, he is warned in a dream, and takes action; he has the vision to guide and protect his family.  The family in our day and age is badly in need of guidance and protection.  On this Feast of the Holy Family, we would do well to pray for the intercession of its head and guardian (see here for my discussion of the Litany of St. Joseph).

     And now, on to the Snippets.  We started this past week in the Anticipation of Advent, and ended amidst the Joy of Christmas:

Monday – One of the loveliest Advent songs, lovingly sung: “Frederica von Stade – ‘Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming’” [here]

Tuesday – A woman and her doctor couldn’t be wrong, could they? “Abortion Myth # 14” [here]

Thursday – Posted on Christmas Day – if this isn't already your favorite Christmas song, it might be after you see this video: “Merry Christmas – Beautiful Celtic Version of ‘O Holy Night’” [here]

Friday – We need to pay attention to Mater Ecclesia and her Liturgical Calendar: here I announce my intention to honor each of the Twelve Days of Christmas, each at its proper time: “Christmas Is Just Beginning!” [here]

   and – The 2nd Day of Christmas gives us our first martyr – here’s why it’s still a time for rejoicing: “The 2nd Day of Christmas & Feast of St. Stephen: Joy, Sorrow & Triumph” [here]

Saturday – The 3rd Day of Christmas is the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, the only one of the Twelve Apostles who did not die a martyr; he was also the only Apostle who stood at the Foot of the Cross, the Disciple whom Jesus loved: “The 3rd Day of Christmas & St. John the Evangelist: The Disciple Jesus Loved” [here]

The 3rd Day of Christmas & St. John the Evangelist: The Disciple Jesus Loved

So the soldiers did this. But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your son!" Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25-27)

Pieta between St. John and Mary Magdalene (Pietro Perugino)
     Merry 3rd Day of Christmas!  Today is also the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, author not only of one of the Gospels, but also three New Testament letters and the Book of Revelation. St. John has traditionally been represented by an eagle because he “soars” to greater heights, theologically speaking, than the other Evangelists.  He is also known as “The Beloved Disciple” because in his Gospel he often refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.   
     Many people have wondered over the centuries why John makes such a point of depicting himself as The Beloved Disciple.  On one level, of course, it must reflect his actual experience.  He mentions it frequently and pointedly enough, however, that it seems that there must be more to it.  And so there is: as Edward Sri explains [full article here]:

He represents the ideal disciple.  The beloved disciple is the one who is close to Jesus, leaning on his master’s breast at the last supper (John 13:25).  He is the one Apostle who remains with Jesus even in the face of Christ’s suffering and persecution – while the other Apostles fled, only the beloved disciple followed Jesus all the way to the cross (John 19:26).

     I want to focus on this last point, because so many people are suffering in various ways - in my home right now we are praying for a number of families who are experiencing illness, employment problems, divorce, and other hardships. Modern mental health professionals confirm the words that Charles Dickens put in the mouth of one of his characters in A Christmas Carol more than a century and a half ago: “it is at Christmastime that want is most keenly felt”.  This is a very hard time of year for our brothers and sisters who are in distress. I think the passage from John’s Gospel at the top of this post has a special import for those who find themselves standing at the Foot of The Cross in the midst of this festive season: all who join their suffering to His are his Beloved Disciples; the Mother of Jesus is your mother, and Christ your Brother suffers with you.  

May God's blessing be on you all this Christmas!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas Is Just Beginning!

  I have a vivid memory of a Christmas years ago, shortly after my return to the Faith, seeing the Christmas tree literally hurled through the front door on the afternoon of Christmas Day (this at the home of relatives who shall remain unnamed).  I was struck by how switched-around things had become, how the commercial “holiday season” had so thoroughly subverted the traditional liturgical “Christmas Season”.  Since that time my Lovely Bride and I have been looking for ways to preserve and honor Advent as a season of penitence and preparation, and Christmas (all of it) in its proper place, as “Christ’s Mass”.   
      We have found this endeavor to be more difficult than it sounds: it’s hard to be penitential when everyone around you is celebrating, and hard as well to celebrate when everyone else is worn out from revelry.  I was musing on all this as I sat in the pew before Midnight Mass, and it occurred to me that, since I have a blog, one thing I could do is to post something specific to each of the Twelve Days through the Christmas Season.  It need not be something long or involved (in fact, brevity would be a plus), but it should be relevant.  I began planning my posts on the spot: you can see my posts for Days 1 and 2 here and here.
     I suspect that it might become difficult to keep it up as the Christmas Season approaches its end, but part of the purpose of the Twelve Posts of Christmas is to keep myself focused on the real “Reason for the Season” as Christ’s Church has given it to us; I hope to help others to do the same.  Merry Christmas to all!


The 2nd Day of Christmas & Feast of St. Stephen: Joy, Sorrow & Triumph

But he [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God." But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
And Saul was consenting to his death.  (Acts 7:55-8:1)   

 I’ve heard it said that the wooden manger, a couple of planks laid across two trestles, foreshadows the wooden beams of the cross.  If that’s a little too subtle an indication of what the incarnation is about, there’s this: on the Second Day of Christmas, when the dishes from Christmas dinner have hardly had time to dry and be put away, we celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen, the Proto-martyr, the first Christian to die for the Faith after the death of Christ himself.  Could there possibly be a more jarring reminder that our Joy is not care-free, that Grace is not cheap, and that the Nativity leads directly to the Crucifixion? 
     St. Stephen himself was one of the original deacons, who were chosen in the following way:

And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word."  (Acts 6:2-4)

Despite being appointed “to serve tables”, Stephen, like his fellow Deacon Philip (see here), was in fact also called upon to preach the word of God (Acts 7), which is what leads to his death.  St. Stephen’s story is a reminder that we all have different roles to play, but all of us are called upon to witness to the Gospel  (μάρτυς, the Greek word from which we get the word martyr, means “witness”).
     The very origin of that word shows us that the simple fact of being a witness to Christ provokes strong, sometimes violent, opposition. But note the young man Saul (the future St. Paul, Apostle and Martyr), who looks on in approval, maybe even as a leader or instigator of St. Stephen’s stoning. It’s possible that the example of the Proto-martyr helped to prepare him for his eventual conversion, and that the ferocity of his persecution of Christians between Stephen’s death and his own encounter with the risen Christ was borne of a desperate resistance to the gentle promptings that were stirring in his heart. In any case, we see that we should not be discouraged even by the strongest opposition, because the power of Christ is stronger still.  We need to do our part, and trust Him to do the rest.
     And so if we take the long view, commemorating the death of the First Martyr at this time is not at all strange. The Liturgical Calendar reminds us, on the Second Day of  Christmas, that we need to embrace the Gospel in its entirety: the joy of  the Nativity leads to the sorrow of Cavalry, which itself prepares the way for the still greater glory of Easter.  I’ll give St. Peter the final word:
There is cause for rejoicing here. You may for a time have to suffer the distress of many trials; but this is so that your faith, which is more precious than the passing splendor of fire-tried gold, may by its genuineness lead to praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ appears. (1 Peter. 1:6-7)

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas - Beautiful Celtic Version of O Holy Night

Merry Christmas, everybody – may the Lord bless you on the feast of his Nativity!

I have especially loved “O Holy Night” for a long time.  I am particularly fond of a lush orchestral arrangement with a world-famous operatic soprano sending chills down the spine – but for today I was looking for something a little more modest, but just as beautiful, to honor the little child born in a stable and lying in a manger. This is what I found: 

What’s more, the video was produced for a great cause; here are the notes from the YouTube page:

A brand new Celtic version of O Holy Night arranged and performed by Irish Classical Crossover group Affinití in aid of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. 

Oh Holy Night has been our favourite Christmas song for many years and we decided to compose our own celtic arrangement of it this Christmas to help raise awareness and funds for the wonderful work of the SVP. 

We really hope you enjoy it and if you do, please share! 

With heartfelt thanks to all those who gave their time to produce this track and video. Mark Cahill, Blanaid Murphy, Germaine Carlos, The Palestrina Boys Choir, Carlow Choral society, Army of Id, Lucy Nuzum, Empower Studio and St. Mary's church Haddington Road for the use of the church in the video.

"Adoration of the Shepherds" by Charles Le Brun

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Abortion Myth # 14

MYTH: “Abortion should be a decision between a woman and her doctor.”

TRUTH  Involving a “doctor” doesn’t change the nature or reality of abortion; it is still the intentional taking of innocent human life, which is never morally permissible, not even with a doctor’s assent.
Hippocrates: doctors must not abort

-          Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath, which for over 2,000 years had the following clause:

I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.  Similarly, I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy.  In purity and holiness I will guard my life and my art.

Unfortunately, this clause has been removed in recent years at medical schools in the United States and Western Europe.

-          Very often the only doctor involved is the abortionist himself or herself, who frequently does not even speak to the mother before, during or after the “procedure”.

-          We quite rightly expect fathers to take responsibility for their children when they are allowed to live; should we deny them the right to protect their unborn children from death by abortion?

-          Fathers of aborted babies often undergo great suffering; see “Men Hurt Too” [here] on the Priests For Life website and FatherhoodForever [here].  Shouldn’t they have a say in the decision?

-          The aborted child, who is most directly affected by abortion, has no say at all.

The idea for the arguments above comes from Randy Alcorn’s Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments.


Essential Pro-Life Resources:

Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments (link)  

The Elliot Institute (link)  

National Right To Life Committee (link)  

Care-Net (link)

The Nurturing Network (link

Priests for Life (link)

To See The Entire Abortion Myths Series Click HERE 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Frederica von Stade - Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming

This will be my last Advent musical posting, I think.  This is one of my favorite songs of the Advent Season, especially when beautifully sung, as it is here by Frederica von Stade.  

O Flower, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispel with glorious splendour
The darkness everywhere;
True man, yet very God,
From Sin and death now save us,

And share our every load.     

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sunday Snippets - A Catholic Carnival (4th Sunday of Advent 2014)

    Welcome to Sunday Snippets – A Catholic Carnival, Ladies and Gentleman.  Sunday Snippets is a weekly gathering of Catholic bloggers who come together (in a virtual sort of way) to share their posts for the past week.  The main party is here, at This That and the Other Thing, home of our gracious hostess RAnn, who is also providing the eggnog - but don’t worry, as good Catholics we won’t even think about touching it until Christmas Day.

     Today on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, as we anticipate celebrating the Nativity of Our Lord in a few short days, I am reminded of the following passage from the Old Testament, in which God comes to the prophet Elijah as he hides in a cave:

And he [the Lord] said, "Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD." And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice; And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"  (1 Kings: 11-13)

This, in its way, is as clear a foretaste of the Messiah as the passages we read in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel throughout advent.  Most of us have probably heard that, before the coming of Christ, people lived in fear of divine power.  Encountering God was something to be avoided: the point of praying and offering sacrifice, even sacrificing one’s own flesh and blood, was so that God (more often understood as “the gods”) would leave you alone.  We can detect echoes of this ancient attitude in the account of Abraham as he brought his beloved son Isaac up Mount Moriah, prepared to offer him up (Genesis 22).  The story of Abraham and Isaac, in which God reverses expectations and provides the lamb in place of Isaac, shows us the end of Christ’s earthly ministry; the story of Elijah in the cave shows us its surprising beginning. God doesn’t show himself in any of the terrifying guises one would expect (wind, earthquake, fire), but as a “still, small, voice” (in some translations a “whisper”).  In just the same way, the second person of the Trinity comes among us in the least threatening way imaginable: a helpless little baby, cradled in a feeding trough.  No wonder, when the Angel announces Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, he first tells them not to be afraid; and then he says:

For behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people: for to you is born this day in the city of Davis a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:10-12).

Good News , indeed.  It is, in fact, a Great Joy, and not at all a bad thing when God is in our midst, for “God is Love”(1 John 4:8); and the Infinite Creator of the Universe makes himself finite, small and vulnerable . . . for us.
     And from the sublime to the, well, rather less than sublime.  One year ago today Principium et Finis published its first blog post, the first of a five-part series discussing St. Thomas Aquinas’s teaching on conscience (later reposted in more digestible form here).  It’s been a lot of fun, and I’ve learned a few things along the way.  Such as, eventually, to get to the point - and so here are my posts for this week:

Monday – Perhaps the oldest of Christmas songs, and certainly one of the most lovely: “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” [here]

Tuesday – As St. Therese of Lisieux learned after Midnight Mass in 1886, we all get just the conversion experience we need, if we’re willing to take it:  “The Christmas Conversion of St. Therese”  [here]

Wednesday – Don’t buy the lie, ladies and gentlemen; there is no greater affront to the rights and dignity of women today than abortion: “Abortion Myth #13” [here]

Thursday – No matter how hungry you are, God has bigger things in store for you than a bowl of soup: “Being Christian in the Age of Esau” [here

Friday – OK, I see a Theme For The Week here: look below the surface, there’s more at stake than mere appearances suggest.  Today it’s architecture . . . sort of: “When A Church Is Not A Church” [here]

Finally, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of Our Savior at Christmas, at the End of Time, and to each one of us in our own lives, here’s a beautiful song, "Mary Did You Know?" performed by the lovely HayleyWestenra:

Friday, December 19, 2014

When A Church Is Not A Church

     These are strange days indeed, brothers and sisters.  In my most recent “Sunday Snippets” post [here], commenting upon a former church that had been converted to secular use, I remarked that “I was struck with the realization that this secular hall still looked more like a Catholic Church than many recent church buildings still being used for that purpose.”  I had been intending to expand on the theme in a blog post this week; as it happens, two notable Catholic commentators, Prof. Anthony Esolen and the inimitable Fr. Z both beat me to it. 

The interior of St. Ann's Woonsocket, RI
     Esolen (to whose work I find myself linking rather often) published an essay [here] in Crisis magazine, using the magnificent St. Ann’s Church in Woonsocket, RI, as his vehicle for discussing what he calls the libido delendi, “lust for destruction”.  This odious force has had its way with the Catholic Church over the past few decades, and not only in matters relating to church art and architecture, but in terms of language, liturgy, and much else.  Fr. Z approvingly takes up Esolen’s evocative Latin phrase in his post [here] commenting on the Crisis article, and ends with a rousing call to battle the libido delendi with a renewed push to revive the Extraordinary Form in as many places as possible.  As it turns out, the indefatigable Prof. Esolen also published a second essay on a the theme of tradition and destruction [here] at The Catholic Thing, this time focusing on the posture of prayer in the Mass (ably assisted by Homer and his Odyssey).
     All of the above is worth reading, but if I may try to summarize: Esolen’s overarching theme is the incarnational nature of Catholic worship, how the art, architecture, language and posture of prayer, and the direct tangible connection to the experiences of our predecessors in the Faith, are all part of our experience of God.  As he says in his Crisis article, referring to the former parishioners of the beautifully frescoed St. Ann’s:

Every time they entered their church, they walked into a great symphony of stories. Here is Abel, the smoke of his sacrifice ascending straight toward the heavens. Here is Cain, ducking, his arms held before his head, the smoke of his sacrifice blinding and choking. Here is God the Father, bringing light out of darkness. Here exactly opposite Him is the prophet Jonah, spat out by the whale de profundis onto the shore. You cannot understand the paintings and their placement in the same way in which you understand a bald message, such as, “The last person to leave the church must lock the doors.” You cannot come to an end of understanding them. They are mysteries, familiar and utterly unfamiliar at once. They cause you to be at home with wonders.

We worship the God Who Became Flesh with our entire being, and we can’t contain that experience within our limited minds and in narrow categories of our own devising.  In The Catholic Thing Esolen describes the church/liturgy/doctrine wreck-o-vators as people who simply don’t grasp this expansive understanding of Catholic practice (and, really, human exeistence):

Over-schooled people, long sheltered from the physical necessities of life, from plowing, sowing, digging, sawing, stitching, bleaching, ironing, mowing – they are most prone to lifeless abstractions, and most dismissive of the bodily gestures that people who work with hands and shoulders and backs understand.

And as he points out, again in Crisis:

Intellectuals are the original smashers of images. It was not quarry workers who demanded that their communion rails be knocked out with sledge hammers. It was not little children who pleaded with their pastors to cover paintings with whitewash. It was not housewives who demanded that the high altars with all their draperies and candelabra be replaced with tables so bare and spare that they would not do for an ordinary kitchen.

Our intellectual understandings need to be refined by the real corporeal experience of the Faith as handed on and as lived by generations of believers. Esolen suggests that when we separate ourselves from the tangible signs of that history, we get the de-mystifiying, the leveling, the whitewashing and, “as an ultimate but never to be realized aim, the destruction of Christ’s Church on earth.”
The reredos of the former St. Mary's, Lewiston, ME
     I found myself entertaining similar thoughts a couple weeks ago as I sat in the former St. Mary’s Church in Lewiston, Maine, now a private meeting hall. I was  listening to a lawyer who is also a Baptist preacher talking, ironically enough, about the deconstruction of the U.S. Constitution, as a statue of the Blessed Mother cradling the Baby Jesus looked down on it all. As I looked at that lovely old reredos (the structure that stands behind an old-fashioned high altar) I kept thinking of all the newer churches I’ve seen, where they don’t seem to know what to do with the space behind the new-style free-standing altar. One of the better choices I’ve seen is a large wall painting of Christ Pantocrator; a large Crucifix is also appropriate; less suitably, I’ve seen shelves or plants; the worst solution I can recall was a piano occupying the area behind the altar, as if it we were in a concert hall.
     One thing I’ve never seen on the back wall in any church built since 1965 is a high altar, with or without a reredos.  One of the most distinctive architectural features, perhaps the only essential architectural element, of every single Catholic church built from the time of Constantine seventeen centuries ago up until the mid sixties, and it doesn’t occur to anyone involved in designing Catholic churches as the solution to the problem of what to put behind the new altar - even if only for the sake of appearance.  It reminds me of the people I’ve seen doing the awkward dance of holding a squirming baby in one arm while trying to receive communion in the other hand without dropping either the Sacred Host or the child (and I have seen this many times).  Do they not realize that they if they simply held their youngster securely with both hands and put their tongue out to receive they could protect the safety of the child, the sanctity of the Sacrament, and their own dignity all at the same time?  In both cases, doing what has been the long-standing tradition of our predecessors is both more elegant and more practical. 
     The high altar, as an architectural element, also does something else as well: it serves as a natural focal point (especially when it is emphasized by the reredos or a baldacchino, a canopy-like structure over the altar). In a church of traditional design, all the elements naturally draw the eye toward the high altar, where the miracle of transubstantiation takes place as the Word becomes Flesh, and just above that the Tabernacle, containing the Body of Christ. Even on an unconscious level we understand that Christ is the center, and that our encounter with Him in the Eucharist is the Source and Summit of the Christian Life.  Compare the esthetic confusion of many contemporary altars and churches with the still profound impact of  a preserved former church like the former St. Mary’s in Lewiston . . . or St. Ann in Woonsocket.
     Did I mention St. Ann’s, like St. Mary’s, is no longer a church?  That’s a detail that Prof. Esolen seems to have left out of his otherwise excellent essay.  You can visit the web site of the St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center here.  Strange days, as I said above.  The Diocese was going to tear down one of the most beautiful, and one of the most theologically engaging, parish churches in the United States, but the building, along with its treasure of art and inspiring architecture was saved by a secular group.  Now its gorgeous frescoes look down on wedding receptions and the like, but the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is no longer offered, as far as I can tell: neither on the high altar nor on the free-standing post-Vatican II altar.  At any rate, while there is a link on the website labeled “Church Services”, the page it leads to is empty.

Detail of a Fresco at St. Ann: Angel wings come through the architecture

     How odd, and sad. “The sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8). Secular groups are willing to save, on purely esthetic or sentimental grounds, sacred treasures that have been entrusted to us but which we are trying to throw away. The church buildings are only an example.  As Anthony Esolen argues, the whole projects of eradication of the old and beautiful, including not just buildings but sacred art, sacred language, traditional devotions, and much more, the libido delendi aims at destroying the Church by destroying any sense of identity among its members.  Totalitarian states try to smother opposition by separating people from each other and from their history, so that they have no strong sense of self, of who they are.  St. John Paul understood this well, and by recalling the Polish people to their national and Christian identity led the way to the overthrow of communism.  So why are we trying so hard to destroy our own Catholic identity?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Being Christian in the Age of Esau

One Old Testament passage that has stayed with me for a long time is the story of Jacob and Esau from Genesis (chapter 27). As a little boy I was fascinated by Jacob’s trick (well, his mother Rebecca’s trick) of using goat skins on his hands to fool his blind old father Isaac into believing him to be his hairy brother Esau, and so obtain the father’s blessing. Later, when I was a father myself, I was also impressed by the obvious importance of the paternal blessing (which I have generously bestowed on all my children). But I was always troubled by the fact of Jacob’s dishonesty in obtaining it.  The Bible wasn’t condoning lying, was it?

     Of course, it’s not; but how to explain the apparent contradiction?  There are many cases in Scripture in which apparently shocking details serve to grab our attention and direct it to a main point.  We see Jesus do this in the Gospels.  In Luke, for instance, when he says: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations.”  (Luke 16: 9) We know that Jesus can’t really mean that we should use “unrighteous mammon [wealth]” to make friends, or that such friends could possibly offer us “eternal habitations”.  We need to read on to see where he’s leading us:

"He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." (Luke 16: 10-13)

We are drawn into thinking about his point more deeply (which is that only God, not mammon, can save us), because we want to resolve the apparent contradiction.  We see something similar in the parable of the wedding guest who is “bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness” simply because he’s wearing the wrong clothes (Matthew 22:13) and in many other places as well.
     In the story of Jacob and Esau we need to look two chapters earlier to get the context for Esau’s loss of his father’s blessing:

Once when Jacob was boiling pottage, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. And Esau said to Jacob, "Let me eat some of that red pottage, for I am famished!" (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, "First sell me your birthright." Esau said, "I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?" Jacob said, "Swear to me first." So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Gen. 25:29-34)

Having read the earlier passage, we know that Esau doesn’t deserve his father’s blessing, because he “despised his birthright”; he willingly gave it away even before Jacob and Rebecca’s trickery.  He loses both birthright and blessing because he has his priorities reversed: he has given immediate material things priority over those things that are truly important. 
     We see this same basic message many times in Scripture, as when St. Paul says:

For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our commonwealth is in heaven . . .  (Phil 3:18-20a)

Esau and the people St. Paul speaks of are extreme examples; it is possible to fall into lesser degrees of the same problem, as we see in the case of the sisters Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42).  Martha is too distracted by the various details of hospitality to pay much attention to the Divine Guest in her house, while Mary, who sits at the feet of Jesus, “has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her”.
     We know that in spite of what happens in this passage, Martha loves Jesus very much, and of course it is right for her to be concerned for the comfort of her guest. The problem is that she becomes so tangled up in means that she forgets about the end to which they are directed.  Her example should be a warning to us: we don’t have to be an Esau to get our priorities reversed.  We all have causes that are important to us, but we can’t let them become our guiding principles: our actions in these causes should be an expression of our faith (see James 2:18), not the focus of it.  While this failing may be endemic to the “social justice” wing of Catholicism (the CDF document Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation”here, explains beautifully; thank you yet again, Cardinal Ratzinger), the rest of us are susceptible, too: it’s a rare Catholic indeed who has not been a Martha, or worse, on more than one occasion (mea culpa!).  We need to be on guard all the more because we live in an Age of Esau that exalts Action and the Here and Now, and denies the Transcendent.
     So, what to do?  How to avoid falling into the trap?  Someone with much more experience in such things once directed me to this passage from the Gospel of Matthew:

And one of them  a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him.  “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment of the law?  And he said to him. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  (Matthew 22:37-39)

We must always remember that the “great and first commandment” is to love God; that takes priority.  If we put loving our neighbor before, or instead of, loving God, then our actions will be disordered and won’t bear the intended fruit.  Therefore, we need to pray first, make sure our course of action is guided by the teaching of Christ through his Church and the Scriptures, and remember that "here we have no lasting city, but we seek the City which is to come" (Hebrews 13:14) if we wish to avoid being a Martha or, even worse, an Esau.

An earlier version of this post was first published on May 9th of this year.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Abortion Myth #13

MYTH: "Legalized abortion is necessary for the protection of women’s rights."

TRUTH: Abortion demeans and exploits women.

-Pregnancy is a natural, healthy state for women; it is the most significant difference between women and men.  Treating pregnancy like a disease implies that there’s something wrong with the nature of women's bodies and therefore with simply being a woman.  The group Feminists for Life says in their Debate Handbook:

When women feel that a pregnant body is a body out of control, deviant, diseased, they are internalizing attitudes of low self-esteem toward the female body.  These attitudes contradict the rightful feminist affirmation of pregnancy as a natural bodily function which deserves societal respect and accommodation.

-It is also natural for women to want to protect and nurture their children; to destroy their own children when they are most in need of protection violates an essential part of women's nature.

Mother and Child, by Frederic Leighton

-Abortion denies the most basic right, the right to life, to hundreds of thousands of unborn women every year.

-Most women who abort do so because they believe they have no choice: many are coerced, and they are often abused and threatened with violence, with loss of employment or educational opportunities, or with other adverse consequences if they don’t abort (see ). Shouldn't we protect a woman's right not to be forced to kill her own children?

-Legalized abortion empowers irresponsible men, because it enables them to exploit women sexually without having to accept the responsibilities of fatherhood.

-Pro-abortion activists fight strenuously at every turn against laws requiring women be given information about abortion and its alternatives.  What about women's right to make informed choices?

-The original feminists (Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, for instance) opposed abortion on the grounds that abortion was a crime against women as well as their children.  Alice Paul said “Abortion is the ultimate exploitation of women.”


Essential Pro-Life Resources:

Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments (link)  

The Elliot Institute (link)  

National Right To Life Committee (link)  

Care-Net (link)

The Nurturing Network (link)

To See The Entire Abortion Myths Series Click HERE 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Christmas Conversion of St.Thérèse

The future St.Thérèse (R) with sister Pauline
        In the lives of the Saints we can find some amazing stories of Conversion: the Risen Lord literally knocking his persecutor Saul to ground and blinding him, in order to raise him up as St. Paul; the rich and spoiled son of an Italian cloth merchant who needed a year in a dungeon as a POW followed by a near fatal illness before he cast off self-indulgence to become St. Francis of Assissi; the vain and vainglorious Spanish nobleman who had his leg nearly shot off with a cannonball, and then went through months of excruciating recovery, before he could begin to see God in All Things as St. Ignatius of Loyola.  How startlingly different, and yet how strikingly the same is the conversion of the little French girl Thérèse Martin, now St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, as she tells it her autobiographical Story of A Soul

     I had a constant and ardent desire to advance in virtue, but often my actions were spoilt by imperfections. My extreme sensitiveness made me almost unbearable. All arguments were useless. I simply could not correct myself of this miserable fault. . .  A miracle on a small scale was needed to give me strength of character all at once, and God worked this long-desired miracle on Christmas Day, 1886. . .
     Now I will tell you, dear Mother, how I received this inestimable grace of complete conversion. I knew that when we reached home after Midnight Mass I should find my shoes in the chimney-corner, filled with presents, just as when I was a little child, which proves that my sisters still treated me as a baby. Papa, too, liked to watch my enjoyment and hear my cries of delight at each fresh surprise that came from the magic shoes, and his pleasure added to mine. But the time had come when Our Lord wished to free me from childhood's failings, and even withdraw me from its innocent pleasures. On this occasion, instead of indulging me as he generally did, Papa seemed vexed, and on my way upstairs I heard him say: "Really all this is too babyish for a big girl like Thérèse, and I hope it is the last year it will happen." His words cut me to the quick. Céline, knowing how sensitive I was, whispered: "Don't go downstairs just yet—wait a little, you would cry too much if you looked at your presents before Papa." But Thérèse was no longer the same—Jesus had changed her heart.
     Choking back my tears, I ran down to the dining-room, and, though my heart beat fast, I picked up my shoes, and gaily pulled out all the things, looking as happy as a queen. Papa laughed, and did not show any trace of displeasure, and Céline thought she must be dreaming. But happily it was a reality; little Thérèse had regained, once for all, the strength of mind which she had lost at the age of four and a half.
     On this night of grace, the third period of my life began—the most beautiful of all, the one most filled with heavenly favours. In an instant Our Lord, satisfied with my good will, accomplished the work I had not been able to do during all these years. Like the Apostle I could say: "Master, we have laboured all night, and have taken nothing."
     More merciful to me even than to His beloved disciples, Our Lord Himself took the net, cast it, and drew it out full of fishes. He made me a fisher of men. Love and a spirit of self-forgetfulness took possession of me, and from that time I was perfectly happy.

The Lord didn’t need to knock Thérèse down, beat her up, or have her shot in order to get her full attention; all he needed was to allow her to overhear a couple of stray comments from the father she loved so dearly.  That wounded her deeply enough to reveal to her the reality of her own selfishness, and to open her up completely to Christ’s Grace.  The meaning of Conversion, after all, is to “turn around” from a way of life dictated by our own desires to one truly centered on God.
     Now, most of us need a wake-up more like that which was granted to St. Paul or St. Francis; perhaps not quite as dramatic, but most of us, I suspect, are much more wrapped up in our sin than was little Thérèse Martin.  But that is precisely why the Little Flower’s conversion stands out: even someone who seems to be doing just about everything right is still in need of conversion, and not just in one instant, but continuously over a lifetime (and of course she did experience greater suffering later in her short life). Sin will always be trying to turn us back. 
     St. Thérèse’s conversion story reminds us of something else.  There will always be opportunities for conversion.  We don’t need to go out looking for trouble, because we will all have ample opportunity to experience The Fall in our lives.  The more enmeshed we are in sin, however, and the higher the walls between ourselves and God, the harder our fall must be.  Wouldn’t it be better to come to Christ like Thérèse did, without too much collateral damage to ourselves and to others?
     Finally, St. Thérèse learned to turn her hurt and disappointment into generosity of spirit, her selfishness to selflessness.  When I think back on her Christmas of 1886 I am reminded that I need to ask my Lord for the Grace to do the same. O come, O come Emmanuel!


Monday, December 15, 2014

Of the Father's Love Begotten

"Of The Father's Love Begotten" is a beautiful and ancient hymn.  Written in Latin in the 5th century by Aurelius Prudentius (translated in the 19th century by Henry W. Baker and J.M. Neale); the tune is Divinum Mysterium, an 11th century chant.  You can find a good discussion of this hymn, along with other typically incisive insights here, in an article by the indispensible Anthony Esolen.  May you have a Blessed Advent.

Christ, to Thee with God the Father,
And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee,
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
And unwearied praises be.
Honor, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory,
Evermore and evermore.