Sunday, January 8, 2017

Epiphany: The Lord Made Manifest

Happy Epiphany . . . and a Merry Christmas!

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 5, 2017

12th Day of Christmas: Adeste Fideles, et. al.

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

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Henry, Charles, Ernest, and Frances Longfellow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"My Friend, The Enemy" by Mort Kunstler

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 2, 2017

9th Day of Christmas: Light of the Stable and Best Posts of 2016

     Merry Christmas!  Today is the 9th Day of Christmas; the Christmas season officially ends one week from today, with the Baptism of Our Lord. I've included links below to 12 (ok, 13) favorite posts from the past year, both from this blog and from Nisi Dominus - please feel free to look through: you might find something interesting.

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

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

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

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

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


8 Feb - Some people get very upset when an ad hawking tortilla chips implies that unborn babies might be, you know, human:  “Life Sells Chips (or, Chips Sell Life)” PF

29 Feb - Whoever said the age of miracles is over hasn’t been paying attention to the news: “Seen Any Miracles Lately?” PF

21 March - So, who’s the real prodigal in the story, and who is the worse sinner? “Confession, Jonah, & the Prodigal’s Sons” PF

10 April - The Franciscan Nun who founded EWTN and long-time sports broadcaster Joe Garagiola both died in the same week; they may have more in common than you realize: “Mother Angelica & Brother Joe” ND

1 May - There be Dragons everywhere you look - just ask St. George, Michael Voris, and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: “Fighting Dragons, Inside and Out” ND

21 May - Sharing the Good News is not a microaggression, but Mercy isn’t always easy: “Evangelization, Prayer, & the Spiritual Works of Mercy” ND

27 June - A meditation on love, murder, and a home-town Civil War Mystery: “Charleston, the Stranger & Orlando: The Power of Forgiveness” ND

7 October - Ok, you thought that you’d seen it all,didn’t you? Well, guess what . . . “The Satan Club: One H@!! of an After School Club for Children” ND

16 October - How rational is it to think we can build a perfect world without The Way, The Truth, and The Life? “Slavery in Rationalia” ND
23 October - In which I argue that the Church really does have something to say about wearing underwear as outerwear, and women’s MMA fighting: “Has Modesty Become A Dirty Word? Yoga Pants, Cage Fighting & Catholic Teaching” ND

8 November - You’ve gotta serve somebody, people, but there’s only one Master who can give you true freedom: “Prophet Samuel,The Candidates, & the Letter to Diognetus” ND

13 November - Just when you thought people couldn’t get any more crass . . . vasectomy showers! “A Tribute Vice Pays to Itself (Vasectomy Showers, etc.)” ND

3 December -  How an episode of Star Trek illuminates the priest’s traditional orientation at Mass: “Darmok and Jalod Ad Orientem” ND

Sunday, January 1, 2017

8th Day of Christmas: Solemnity of Mary & Marian Songs

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

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

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

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

    Holy Mother of God, Pray For Us!