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!

Friday, December 29, 2017

5th Day of Christmas: Christmas is Just Beginning (Angels We Have Heard on High)

  Happy 5th Day of Christmas!  For very many us, it has been back on the job for the better part of the working week, and Christmas Day is disappearing in the rear-view mirror.  There is no more Christmas music blaring at us in retail stores, and the only traces of the late "holiday" are the rapidly dwindling stacks of left-over merchandise festooned with 50% OFF signs.   
     We Christians, however, know something that the rest of the world out there doesn't: we're not even half-way through Christmas yet. Today is only the 5th Day of Christmas, 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!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

4th Day of Christmas: Holy Innocents and Babies Saved by Christmas Carols

  Today, the 4th Day of Christmas, is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which commemorates the slaughter of all male children in Bethlehem under two years old by King Herod's soldiers.  Herod had learned from the Magi that the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem, and feared that this Messiah would depose him.  As it happened, the Messiah (Jesus) escaped, and Herod went to his eternal reward (whatever that may have been) while Jesus was still an infant. You can read my post on the Holy Innocents (and Holy Innocence) HERE at Nisi Dominus.

Massacre of the Holy Innocents, Ludovico Mazzolino

    My post on the other site explores the ramifications of this terrible event in more detail, including its reflection in the modern day abortion industry and our pornified culture. Here I would like to focus briefly on the connection of the Holy Innocents to an article on [Dec. 23rd, 2016], “Pro-life Christmas carolers save six babies in Orlando, more in other areas by touching hearts with their singing”.  The article details some amazing rescues, not only in Florida, but across the country:

Pro-Life Action League Executive Director Eric Scheidler described for LifeSiteNews how three different couples turned around and walked away from abortion this year as carolers sang outside Family Planning Associates abortion center in San Bernardino, California.

A compelling feature of the story is that the Christmas Carols themselves seem to have been the decisive factor in changing the minds of people who had come to the clinics intent on aborting a child:

. . . At least one couple was greatly moved by the hymns.

“What impressed me about this report is they actually stopped to tell the caroler group that they changed their mind,” Scheidler stated.
“The couple told them, ‘It was because of your caroling that we decided to keep our baby,’” he said. “The singing was the only thing that happened to change their mind.”
A group in Illinois reports similar results:
"We're having a baby! We changed our minds," a woman called out joyfully to Northwest Families for Life group caroling Tuesday, December 20, in conjunction with Pro-Life Action League’s “Peace in the Womb” Caroling Days in Wood Dale, Ill.
When they met the couple at the car, the group’s co-founder, Maria Goldstein, told LifeSiteNews, the man said to them with a big smile on his face, "Thank you. You're doing a great job!"  
“What exactly was the "great job" we did?” Goldstein said. “We didn't counsel them on the way in; we didn't talk them out of the abortion; we weren't able to show them pictures of developing babies.”  
“All we did was show up, pray, and sing,” she continued. “Maybe they heard our carols inside and felt God tug at their hearts. I guess that really is a "great job!" We got to bring the power of God to this dark place. God is good.”
    God is indeed good.  These stories of the babies saved by carolers cast an interesting light on both the Nativity of Jesus and today’s Feast of the Holy Innocents.  The Incarnation and Nativity came about because, while our efforts are necessary  - “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17) - they are not sufficient.  In the end, we can’t save ourselves, or anyone else, all by ourselves: only the power of God can do that.  In the Life Site story, the Holy Spirit working through sacred Christmas songs changed hearts that were not moved by human arguments.
    The fate of the children killed by Herod’s soldiers in Bethlehem likewise illustrates this point.  Nobody was able to save them from unjust slaughter, they were too young to have any intellectual knowledge of God, and, since Jesus himself was still a baby, baptism was not available to them.  And yet the Church assures us that these little ones did not die in vain, and that they enjoy the reward of Heaven (you can read a short, concise explanation here). They were beyond the help of human agency, but “with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).  If we do our part, God will do the rest.
    An interesting aside: at one time, the story of these poor murdered children itself inspired a large number of songs.  The best known today (the only one, to my knowledge, that is still regularly performed) is The "Coventry Carol" (lyrics below), dating from the 16th century.  The spare, hauntingly beautiful rendition in the clip below is performed by Valeria Mignaco and Alfonso Marin.

1. Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child.
By, by, lully, lullay.

2. O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor Youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

3. Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.

4. Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

3rd Day of Christmas: The Christmas Season is Just Beginning (Joy to the World)

Nativity by Gerard David
Merry Christmas!  Today is the 3rd Day of Christmas: the Christmas Season is only three days young.
The trouble is, it may not feel like Christmas is just beginning.  For many years I had a second job at a local retail store, in the seasonal department.  Retailers want to get "seasonal" merchandise on the shelves before the actual season begins, and try to get out there before their competitors do. As a result, over the past century the commercial “Christmas Season” (now more often called the holiday season) has started earlier and earlier: we are putting Christmas merchandise on the shelves in September, and the Christmas-themed music (mostly about celebrating Christmas, or maybe the “wonderful time of year”, rather than about the Nativity of Jesus itself) begins blaring out of the stores’ PA systems.  They stop receiving Christmas items in early to mid December, and begin selling down their supplies, because once "the holiday” is over (i.e., December 25th . . . what's that holiday called again?) they don’t want to be stuck with a lot of overstock (which means financial losses). In our post-Christian culture the commercial Christmas season and its advertising sets the tone for the culture as a whole, and so for most people Christmas, sadly, is now over.
But not for those of us who are followers of the Babe Lying in the Manger.  Today is only the third of eight days in the Octave of Christmas, all with the liturgical status of solemnity; beyond that, the customary “Twelve Days of Christmas” extend until January 5th, followed by the traditional date of the great Feast of Epiphany on the 6th; the formal Christmas Season itself extends until the Baptism of the Lord on January 10th.  Some Catholics observe Christmas informally until the Feast of the Presentation on February 2nd, as did Saint John Paul II, and also my lovely bride’s Polish forebears.  
Granted, keeping Christmas when it ought to be kept can be hard, especially when we have all been living and working in an environment reveling in the “holiday spirit” during what was supposed to be the preparatory Season of Advent, and is now wearily going back about its business just when the real celebration is just starting.  Fortunately, the Church has given us the Liturgical Calendar, to keep us grounded in the Gospel and the real events of Salvation History.  There we find, as we see in today’s Feast of St. John the Apostle, that while the Incarnation points to the Crucifixion, it is only through the suffering and death of Christ that we come to the Triumph of the Resurrection. Our Celebration of Christmas, then, is not mere revelry in defiance of the cruelty of reality, or a vain attempt to deny it; it is true celebration because we know that, precisely because of that cruel reality, the Child born in Bethlehem has come to take us through the brokenness of this world and beyond to something “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
A couple years ago I set out to keep myself focused on the True Season by posting something related to that particular day for every one of the Twelve Days of Christmas.  While I'm not currently engaged in bloggery, I’m rerunning some of my old Christmas posts, either here or on my other blog, Nisi Dominus.  Please feel free to join me . . . and have a very Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

2nd Day of Christmas: Good King Wenceslas & St. Stephen

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Soft and crisp and even

    Today, the Second Day of Christmas, we (like King Wenceslas in the well-known carol quoted above) celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen.  The song does not actually tell us anything about Stephen himself: it describes instead how Good King Wenceslas goes out on the saint’s day, in an act of Christian charity, to share his Christmas bounty with a lonely and poverty-stricken old peasant.  And, whether or not the incident recounted in the song ever happened, Wenceslas himself was real.  He is based on Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia (the title of king was conferred on him posthumously by Holy Roman Emperor Otto I after his death in 935 AD). Wenceslas’ grandfather was the first Christian duke of Bohemia, but it was Wenceslas himself who firmly established the Church in Bohemia in the face of still strong pagan opposition, and aligned the church in his homeland with the Holy See in Rome.   
    Wenceslas stands at the beginning of Christianity among the Czechs. Likewise, St. Stephen’s feast is at the start of the Christmas season, and St. Stephen himself at the very beginning of the Church; he was, in fact, the first Christian to give his life for the Faith after Christ himself, for which reason he is known as the protomartyr, that is, first martyr. We find a vivid account of his death in the Acts of the Apostles:

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)

The Stoning of St. Stephen, by Paolo Uccello

    Just as our Christmas joy is tempered by the realization that the child lying in the manger must someday hang on the Cross, St. Stephen reminds us, a mere day after the Feast of the Nativity itself, that following the Child of Bethlehem can mean our own Calvary.  Jesus himself tells us: “"Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11).  How is it, then, that his coming is “Good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10)? Because, as our Lord goes on to say, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12). Indeed, as we see in the account above from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Stephen doesn’t go to his death wailing and gnashing his teeth at the cruelty and injustice of it all, but gazing joyfully on his Savior in Heaven, and begging for forgiveness for his persecutors.  Countless martyrs since have done the same, up to the present day.  Christ our Savior didn’t come to save us from unpleasantness in this world, but to save for eternal happiness with him in the next, by rescuing us from our own sin.
    Which brings us back to Good King Wenceslas, who has more in common with St. Stephen than we might at first realize. It’s true that he established a strong foundation for the Church, and exhibited exemplary personal piety and charity; it is also the case that not everyone appreciated those qualities, including other nobles still sympathetic to paganism, as well as his brother Boleslav, who treacherously murdered him.  
    At the time, it must have seemed that Wenceslas was the loser, and that his scheming brother had won, just as St. Stephen seemed to be vanquished by his persecutors.  Today, however, over one thousand years later, Good King Wenceslas is still loved by the Czechs, and remembered as one of the founders of their nation, while his brother carries the odious sobriquet Boleslav the Cruel.  Of more significance than his worldly reputation is the fact that Wenceslas is remembered by the Church as Saint Wenceslas, Martyr, whose feast we celebrate on September 28th. Saints Stephen and Wenceslas stand together among the white-robed army of martyrs before the throne of God, praising their Creator and praying for all of us.
   “Good King Wenceslas” is considered a Christmas carol, although it does not seem to have any direct reference to the Nativity of Our Lord.  It does, however, encourage us to emulate the saints, such as Stephen and Wenceslas, who conformed themselves to Christ. The words with which St. Wenceslas encourages his cold and frightened page in the carol could easily be spoken by Christ himself, and addressed to every one of us:

"Mark my footsteps, good my page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shall find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

See Also: Christmas transcends worldly concerns: “The 2nd Day of Christmas: Merry Christmas & O Holy Night (Hayley Westenra)

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Christmas Conversion of St. Thérèse

The future St.Thérèse (r) and her 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 Assisi; 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 put her in front of a cannon 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”, away 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 the one 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 much 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!