Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum, in vanum laborant qui aedificaverunt eam - "Unless the Lord has built the house, they labored in vain who built it" Psalm 127

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Baptism of the Lord: An Icon of Grace

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 5, 2017

12th Day of Christmas: O Holy Night

 Merry Christmas, for the Twelfth time this Christmas Season!

    Today is the 12th Day since Christmas Day. 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!
    In that spirit (so to speak), I’d the like to quote the Spirit of Christmas Present from the 1951 film version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (not found, however, in Dickens' book):

We spirits of Christmas do not live
only one day of our year.
We live the whole 365.
So is it true of the child
born in Bethlehem.
He does not live in men's hearts only
one day of the year,
but in all the days of the year.

    And so I think it’s apt, one more time, to hear one of my favorite Christmas songs, “O Holy Night”. This lovely rendition is by the Irish group Affiniti:

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

11th Day of Christmas: The Christmas Tree Points to Christ

     Merry Christmas on this the 11th Day of Christmas!  

The Tree in the Classroom
     One year ago on this date I published a post entitled “Don’t Touch That Tree!”, the idea being that it ought still to be blazing bright, in honor of the continuing Christmas Season. I have a tree in my classroom blazing bright right now, bought a number of years ago by some generous students. The natural tree that they first brought in ran afoul of fire regulations, so instead they got an artificial tree; the only ones left at the retailer were of an all-white, pre-lit variety.  The white plastic needles are getting dark with age, and the ornaments are a motley collection brought in or made by students (usually trying to avoid class work) or other well-wishers, but I think it’s beautiful.  
   The tradition of the Christmas Tree is sometimes attacked by self-styled debunkers who dismiss this beloved Christian symbol as a pagan intrusion.  We Christians need not be swayed by such nonsense.  First of all, even if there were historical evidence of evergreen trees being used in such a way, Christ can baptize all things for his use (for more on this point, see my post “Christ is King of All . . . Even the Holidays”).  Pagans prayed to their gods, for instance: should we avoid prayer for that reason?  Pagans offered sacrifice on their altars; do any of us put the offerings on a similar altar in the Temple of Jerusalem in the same category? Certainly the same would apply to Christmas trees, if they had pagan origins.
    As it happens, however, evergreen trees were not worshipped or treated as religious objects among the Germanic and Baltic peoples of Europe, although they were sometimes used as symbols of eternity and the promise of Springtime rebirth.  This rather obvious symbolism was recognized in other parts of the world as well.  The pre-Christians of the German forests directed their religious veneration, at least as it applied to trees (is dendrolatry a word?), toward the deciduous oak tree. This oak-worship figures prominently in one popular story, in fact, about the origins of the Christmas Tree, which only makes sense if we distinguish between the two different kinds of tree.  St. Boniface, who left his native England to evangelize the still pagan Germans of continental Europe in the 8th century, famously chopped down a holy oak to which a young boy was being offered in sacrifice. In one version of the story, after the mighty oak fell a young fir tree could be seen standing behind its stump.  The Saint pointed to the evergreen, and told the onlookers (who were impressed that Wotan hadn’t zapped him out of existence) that they should henceforth direct their veneration to this tree, as a symbol of the True God in the Person of Jesus Christ.
Queen Victoria & Family around the tree
    The first actual historical references to Christmas trees (Boniface certainly did cut down the oak, but the rest of the story is historically dubious) come in the sixteenth century. It seems very unlikely indeed that almost eight centuries after the heathens of central Europe converted and gave up tree-worship their practices would somehow find their way into Christian homes.  Christmas trees did not spread beyond some (not all) German speaking areas, along with Latvia and Estonia, until very recently.  Christmas trees were rarely, if ever, seen in the English speaking world until a little over a century and a half ago, when Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, who was German, introduced the custom to the British Royal family.  A print that first appeared in the
Illustrated London News in 1848 depicting the Queen and family around their tree is generally credited with popularizing Christmas trees both in Britain and in North America.
    Today one sees Christmas trees all over the world; in recent decades the popes have put up large and beautiful trees near the crèche in St. Peter’s Square.  Saint John Paul II explained some of the Christian symbolism of the tree in his Angelus address on December 19th, 2004:
The feast of Christmas, perhaps the most cherished by popular tradition, is full of symbols connected with the different cultures. Among all, the most important is surely the Nativity scene, as I had the opportunity to point out last Sunday.

Together with the Nativity scene, as is true here in St. Peter’s Square, we find the traditional “Christmas tree.” A very ancient custom, moreover, which exalts the value of life, as in winter the evergreen becomes a sign of undying life. In general, the tree is decorated and Christmas gifts are placed under it. The symbol is also eloquent from a typically Christian point of view: It reminds us of the “tree of life” (see Genesis 2:9), representation of Christ, God’s supreme gift to humanity.
The message of the Christmas tree, therefore, is that life is “ever green” if one gives: not so much material things, but of oneself: in friendship and sincere affection, and fraternal help and forgiveness, in shared time and reciprocal listening.

St. Peter's Square decorated for Christmas, 2001 (Lawrence Journal-World)
Pope Benedict XVI elaborated on the same theme four years later:
With its loftiness, its green [color] and the lights in its branches, the Christmas tree is a symbol of life that points to the mystery of Christmas Eve . . .
Christ, the Son of God, brings to the dark, cold, unredeemed world in which he was born, a new hope and a new splendor . . .
If man allows himself to be touched and enlightened by the splendor of the living truth that is Christ, he will experience an interior peace in his heart and will himself become an instrument of peace in a society that has so much nostalgia for reconciliation and redemption.

There you have it: don’t let the nay-sayers wear you down!  We still have some Christmas left this year, so be of good cheer . . . and don’t touch that tree just yet!

Speaking of Christmas trees, here’s a beautiful tri-lingual rendition of “O Tannenbaum” by Andrea Bocelli:

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

10th Day of Christmas: A God of Surprises

The Mighty God: The Birth of Christ by Federico Barocci
    Merry Christmas!   Today is the Tenth Day of Christmas.  This is a good day to reflect on the fact that the God revealed in the Nativity is a God of surprises.  Who would expect the infinite, almighty Deity to manifest himself as a tiny baby, born in a cattle stall with the beasts? Who would have thought that wise and exalted visitors would come to this baby from strange lands many miles away with their rich gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, as we will commemorate Sunday in the liturgical celebration of Epiphany?
     Nor did the child grow up to be the sort of Messiah that people expected, not even his own disciples: he rebukes Peter, his chief Apostle, with “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23) because the man who will become the first Pope can’t accept that The Christ must suffer and die in order to save humanity.  And nobody on earth was really expecting what happened on Easter Sunday.
     Of course, none of the above should have been a surprise: it was all foretold by the Prophets, as we saw over and over again in the Advent readings and prayers.  In other words, he’s a God of surprises mostly because we insist on setting ourselves up to be surprised. But that’s the way we imperfect, broken human beings are: we think we can simply make reality be what we want it to be . . . but God usually has other plans. 
     We can glimpse something of this stubborn arrogance in the story of two of today’s Saints, Zosimus and Athanasius (n.b. – this Athanasius is not the more well-known Athanasius of Alexandria):

Zosimus and Athanasius (d.303) + Martyrs in Cilicia (modern Turkey). They were executed during the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305). According to one account, Zosimus was tortured and Athanasius, a witness, was so moved that he converted to the faith. Both were then tortured but survived and died in peace after being released. They became hermits. (from )

The Roman authorities thought that, if they were brutal enough, they would discourage people from embracing Christianity, but – surprise! – seeing the torture of Zosimus instead drew Athanasius to the Faith.  And his is not an isolated incident: “The blood of the martyrs”, wrote Tertullian, “is the seed of the Church.” Up to the present day, we see that Christianity is strongest when it is under attack.
     We would do well to remember these things when we contemplate the Child in the Manger.  However bad, even disastrous, things may seem (and in a world insistently moving further away from God, they do), we should remember that the same child grows up to promise that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against his Church (Matthew 16:18).  
     Prepare yourself to be surprised.

Monday, January 2, 2017

9th Day of Christmas: Two Doctors and the Best of 2016

Merry Christmas!  

Today is the 9th Day of Christmas, and the Memorial of two Doctors of the Church, St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen.  

It is also the first day of the Christmas Season that is not a Solemnity, but don’t let that get you down: I’ve included a rousing version of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” below.  After that, for those who are interested, is a selection of a few of my favorite posts from 2016 - who knows? You might find something interesting.  Oh, and have a Happy New Year!

Below are a "baker's dozen" of posts from last year, both from this blog and my original blog, Principium et Finis.  Hope you like them, and stick with us in 2017!

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 miracle 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, Mother of God

Bellini Jacopo, Virgin and Child
 Today, the Eighth Day of Christmas, is known out in The World as New Year’s Day; in the Church it is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the final day in the Octave of Christmas.  The secular observance celebrates no more than another turning of a calendar page, but in the Church we look at time with an eye on eternity: the Nativity of Christ turns around all of human history (which is why we eventually adopted the BC/AD arrangement of the centuries with its mirror-image numbering of years, placing the Nativity at the center of time).  Jesus’s mother, Mary, plays an essential part in that unique and astonishing event.
     We must start with the fact that Mary was fully human; as Charles Dickens says in the opening lines of A Christmas Carol, “This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”  Just as Marley’s death is an essential element in Dickens’ tale, the Incarnation’s meaning for mankind is directly connected to the Blessed Mother’s humanity, because if Christ isn’t born of a human woman, He’s not fully human himself, in which case how can He die and redeem humankind? Mary is the guarantor that Jesus, while He truly is God, is truly one of us.

Theotokos of the Life-Giving Spring
     Both truly God, and truly one of us . . . it’s hard for us to reconcile both of those things in our finite minds, but both must be true if Christianity is true.  At the same time, the title “Mother of God” is alarming: some people claim that it seems to say that a mortal woman has brought God into existence, but it doesn't really suggest that at all: after all, we don’t think that ordinary mothers actual create their ordinary human babies, body and soul.  Mothers and Fathers are agents in a larger process, and the soul, of course, comes from God.  The original Greek term Theotokos, literally “God-bearer”, while a little less difficult, still challenges us. It tells us that, just as the original Arc of the Covenant carried Manna from Heaven, along with Tablets of the Decalogue and Aaron’s staff, Mary carried the Second Person of the Trinity in her womb, and so she is called the Arc of the New Covenant (see Revelation 11:19-12:1).
     But the first Arc was merely a container, it contributed nothing to its contents; even before anyone knew anything of genetics, however, it would have been obvious that, in some way, Jesus’s fleshly body owed something, at least, to his mother.  In his face, the color of his eyes, the shape of his nose, or some other physical feature, the familial relationship would be manifest. Through the Motherhood of Mary Jesus, that is to say God, takes on our humanity in an utterly tangible, direct and personal way.
     The Motherhood of Mary, like the Incarnation itself, is a mystery.  It is something that we can really understand (although never fully understand) through experience.  As the last day in the Octave of Christmas, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God it invites us to start looking not only at the Child lying in the manger, but to start looking further at what that Child means for us as men and women.

            O God,
            Who through the fruitful virginity 
                of Blessed Mary
            Bestowed on the Human race the grace of         
                eternal salvation,
            Grant, we pray, that we may experience the 
                 intercession of her,
            Through whom we were found worthy to 
                 receive the author of life,
            Our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son.
            Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of 
                  the HolySpirit,
            One God, for ever and ever.


Saturday, December 31, 2016

7th Day of Christmas: What is The Christmas Season, and Why It Matters

Antique Angel tree-topper at Nisi Dominus 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 usually the Sunday after Epiphany. When Christmas falls on a Sunday as it does this year, we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord on the Monday after Epiphany, which which will be January 9th.  But even that need not be the end: 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. Finally, and perhaps most of all, the Almighty God becoming one of us is a pretty big deal, is it not? Isn't worth more than a day of recognition?

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 (I took a picture just this morning as proof), and the joyful sounds of Christmas Carols still fill the air.  Speaking of which, here are Hayley Westenra and Aled Jones singing "Silent Night":