Saturday, December 31, 2016

7th Day of Christmas: Do You Hear What I Hear?

Now here’s a treat.  I was looking for a song that involved the star of Bethlehem as a complement to my post, “5th Day of Christmas: God Is Light.”  My first thought was of the song “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, because it’s first verse goes:

Said the night wind to the little lamb
Do you see what I see
Way up in the sky little lamb
Do you see what I see
A star, a star
Dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite

As I was perusing the various renditions available on YouTube, I found a clip of none other than Bing Crosby singing this delightful Christmas song back in 1963.  Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!  The Season is still young!

Friday, December 30, 2016

6th 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 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 the same impact.
   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 the President of the United States is on record as refering 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.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

5th Day of Christmas: God Is Light

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

    Today is the 5th Day of Christmas, we're almost at the mid-point of the Twelve Days (although not, strictly speaking, of the Christmas Season). Our Sunday Visitor has published a pamphlet which I ran across at our cathedral that offers suggestions on how to keep the Twelve Days. The writers of the pamphlet recommend the following for the 6th Day, but since tomorrow is the Feast of the Holy Family this year, I propose moving it to today, the 5th. They suggest 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.

The Advent Wreath has become a Christmas Wreath - Fiat Lux!

    Now, in our home we replace the pink and purple advent candles with red ones on Christmas Day, so the candles are already in place. As for the prayer, 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; please feel free to see my recent post on this topic, "Darmok and Jalod Ad Orientem").  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 tradition spend more time and effort telling us that Christ is Light than in explaining how and why. There are certainly connections that spring to mid immediately: darkness is emptiness, sin, despair, death; light is abundance, purity, love, life.  But these only scratch the surface, and we often come to a true understanding of something, by working with it, and by wrestling with it in our minds.  I propose that we observe this 5th Day of Christmas by praying over the passages of Scripture above (and others like them), by lighting up our Christmas candles, and by thinking about the ways in which Christ is light.  We could think about what that means for us and for our lives, and how we make that a reality for others.
    Merry Christmas!

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2016

1st Day:

May God bless you on the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord: “Merry Christmas! Of The Father’s Love Begotten” (Principium et Finis)

Christus Natus Est, Alleluiah!Merry Christmas! The First Noel(Nisi Dominus)

2nd Day:

Christmas transcends worldly concerns: “The 2nd Day of Christmas & O Holy Night (Hayley Westenra)(Principium et Finis)

Following in the Master’s footsteps - “2nd Day of Christmas: St. Stephen & Good King Wenceslas(Nisi Dominus)

3rd Day:

Standing at the foot of the Cross: “3rd Day of Christmas: St. John the Apostle“ (Principium et Finis)

The Christmas Season is still young! “3rd Day of Christmas: Joy To The World!

4th Day:

With God, all things are possible: “4th Day of Christmas: Holy Innocents & Babies Saved By Christmas Carols” (Nisi Dominus)

The Death of the Holy Innocents, and the death of Holy Innocence: “4th Day of Christmas: Holy Innocents” (Principium et Finis)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

4th Day of Christmas: Holy Innocents

Today is the 4th Day of Christmas. In the family group of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus we see God's plan for the family (more on that this coming Friday, the Feast of the Holy Family).  Today’s Feast of the Holy Innocents shows us how much The World (here in the person of King Herod) respects God’s plan:  it commemorates 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. The Holy Family escaped when Joseph was warned in a dream (see Matthew 1:18-25).

Massacre of the Holy Innocents by Francois-Joseph Navez
The most obvious present-day reflection of the murder of the Holy Innocents two thousand years ago is the wholesale massacre of unborn children by the millions through abortion today. The horror of this slaughter, and the callousness of its perpetrators, was brought into sharp focus in the past couple of years by the release of undercover videos documenting the flourishing commerce in the body parts of the abortion industry’s tiny victims.
We see a subtler echo of the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents in those youngsters who have dodged the abortionist, but are robbed of their Holy Innocence by our pornified pop culture.  Children today are directly in the path of a constant flood of degraded and degrading sexuality that pervades entertainment and advertising, blares out of televisions in airports and doctors’ waiting rooms, and has commandeered the curriculum in public (and to a remarkable degree in private, even religious) schools.  We can see the results in the ongoing dissolution of the family and the attendant host of social ills.
Here’s where the Holy Family can show us the way.  Just as Joseph and Mary brought Baby Jesus to Egypt to protect him from Herod’s soldiers, we can work to provide some safety for our own children, and other children in our care. It’s true, of course, that even measures such as internet filters and homeschooling can provide only so much protection.  Moreover, critics are quick to point out that nobody remains a child forever: eventually we must all face the world’s challenges.  Quite true - and the Holy Family did not linger in Egypt, nor did the grown Jesus remain an obscure carpenter in his parents’ home.  Nevertheless, aside from one incident at the temple in his twelfth year, he waited until His Time Had Come before he took up his Cross and walked the path to Calvary.  Blessed Pope Paul VI talked about the childhood of Jesus when he visited the Holy Family’s home town of Nazareth.  Blessed Paul said, in part:

 How gladly would I become a child again, and go to school once more in this humble and sublime school of Nazareth: close to Mary, I wish I could make a fresh start at learning the true science of life and the higher wisdom of divine truths . . .

Blessed Paul VI in Nazareth

      May the silence of Nazareth teach us recollection, inwardness, the disposition to listen to good inspirations and the teachings of true masters. May it teach us the need for and the value of preparation, of study, of meditation, of personal inner life, of the prayer which God alone sees in secret.
  Next, there is a lesson on family life. May Nazareth teach us what family life is, its communion of love, its austere and simple beauty, and its sacred and inviolable character. Let us learn from Nazareth that the formation received at home is gentle and irreplaceable. Let us learn the prime importance of the role of the family in the social order.

The child Jesus was formed and educated under the protection of his family before he went out into the world as a man.  In our world the pimps and pornographers of the popular culture have no more regard for the well-being of our children than Herod did for the children of Bethlehem. Is it too much to ask that we allow them a taste of Nazareth while there’s time?

(To read about babies saved from abortion by Christmas Carols, and to hear a hauntingly beautiful version of the 16th century "Coventry Carol", which was inspired by the Holy Innocents, HERE at Nisi Dominus)

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

3rd Day of Christmas: St. John the Apostle

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)

Crucified Jesus with Maria and Iohannes, Giovanni Bazzi
 Merry 3rd Day of Christmas!  Today we observe 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!

Monday, December 26, 2016

2nd Day of Christmas & O Holy Night (Hayley Westenra)

    These are strange days: this year at midnight Mass our local bishop started his homily by wishing the congregation a Merry Christmas . . . then paused to assure us that he did not intend it "as a political statement".  Strange, and yet not so strange.  For a long time we have had to fight against Christmas becoming a mere Season of Vague Good Cheer, or a Commercial Extravaganza; now we also have to contend with the fact that the War On Christmas has become one of many fronts in secularism's ongoing kulturkampf.

The Adoration of the Shepherds,
by Phillippe de Chaimpage
    While I, for one, don't intend to lose my freedom to say "Merry Christmas" to whomever I choose, the good bishop was quite correct to remind us that if we allow our Christmas greetings to become just another weapon in the Culture Wars, we have already lost. In Christmas we reenact an event that far transcends any of the political or cultural concerns that occupy us in this world.  As the Apostle John tells us:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life-- the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us-- that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)

The Eternal Life that was with the Father was made manifest to us - no wonder God sent Angels to proclaim it!  Our celebration of Christmas is an opportunity for us to experience Our Lord’s Holiness in a special way.  One way to make that holiness real to us is to observe Christmas in the way Christ’s Church has set out for us: beginning with the Feast of the Nativity yesterday (after a season of preparation, Advent, over the previous four weeks), and with a holy season that is just beginning.
    As in previous years, my posts over the next few weeks will be focused on the Days of Christmas. Today is the the 2nd Day of Christmas, a solemnity in the Octave of Christmas, and also the Feast of St. Stephen, Protomartyr (for whom I have written a separate post: 2nd Day of Christmas: St. Stephen & Good King Wenceslas).

    This is a Holy Season, that is a season set aside for God; I invite you to celebrate with the clip below, a lovely rendition of one of my favorite Christmas songs, “O Holy Night”, as performed by Hayley Westenra:

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas! Of The Father's Love Begotten

Coreggio's "Nativity"
Merry Christmas!
There are many wonderful, joyful, exuberant Christmas songs, and more than a few will appear in this space over the course of the Christmas Season.  Today, however, on the Feast of the Nativity itself, I'm sharing something quieter, a little more contemplative, but something that beautifully expresses the power of the Eternal Word that came among us in the form of a little baby lying in a stable.

"Of The Father's Love Begotten" is one of the oldest Christmas songs, in fact one of the most ancient Christian hymns of any sort.  The words were written in the 5th Century by Aurelius Prudentius, and the melody dates back to the 10th century.  The wonder it expresses, however, is as fresh as it was the day Prudentius first put the words down on parchment . . . as fresh, in fact, as it was two thousand years ago, when The Word became Flesh.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming (Frederica Von Stade)

Nativity With The Torch, Nain Brothers
   The beautiful hymn "Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming" (originally the 16th century German song "Es Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen") is one of my favorite songs of the Advent Season, especially when beautifully sung, as it is here by Frederica von Stade (with the help of the American Boy Choir).  It draws it’s inspiration from the following Messianic passage from the Prophet Isaiah:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. (Isaiah 11:1-2)
Here the “shoot” (the Messiah Jesus, descended through his human mother Mary from King David, Jesse’s son) is depicted as a lovely Rose, which we are invited to gaze upon in the company of the Blessed Mother. It's a wonderful reminder of what we are waiting for as this Advent Season draws to its conclusion.

The Lord is close at hand - come, let us worship Him

Today, December 23rd, is also the Feast of St. Servulus.  Please see my post “St. Servulus, Tiny Tim, & The Nativity of Jesus” on the blog Nisi Dominus.