-by Pieter Bruegel der Ältere – Landschaft mit der Flucht nach Ägypten, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, 1563, 37.1 × 55.6 cm (14.6 × 21.9 in), Pieter Bruegel the Elder – The Courtauld Institute of Art, London, UK. Please click on the image for greater detail.
-by Br Gabriel Theis, OP, English Province
“The motif seems all too familiar, and maybe not related to Advent itself: We see the Holy Family after Jesus’ birth on their flight to Egypt (Mt 2:13–14). Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s depiction of the scene, which I saw in an exhibition in Vienna, is set in an alpine landscape familiar to the artist. Bruegel’s interpretation follows the conventions of his time: While the broad and beautiful landscape captivates our attention, the small protagonists can easily escape our eyes. The naiveté and plainness of this depiction deceives us though: Bruegel’s famous Wimmelbilder or ‘swarm pictures’ require special concentration for their hidden details. This may remind us of our contact with biblical texts or matters of faith in general: While they appear rather simple and straightforward on the surface, we discover more and more depth by reflecting on them time and time again.
In the case of the Flight into Egypt, Bruegel hides some details that stir up the superficial tranquility of the scene and, I think, our approach to Advent as well. One of the trees that the Holy Family has just passed contains an idol falling to the ground: Bruegel thereby hints at an apocryphal story about Jesus’ arrival at an Egyptian temple, where all idols fell to the ground, thus bowing to His Divinity. By coming into our own lives, Jesus necessarily also overthrows all false idols, concepts and expectations – everything that wants to force Him into our little schemes, even if it is just our longing for the wrong kind of peace. Yes, Advent exists to console us – but not with the riches of this world, but with the poor boy in the crib, who “became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). We find truth not in vain kinds of philosophy (Col 2:8) or cleverly devised myths (2 Pet 1:16), but in Christ alone; and our lives should give testimony of our bowing to His truth that often contradicts our worldly standards.
Another example of this ‘stirring-up’ of our desire for harmony and cosiness is found even closer to the Holy Family: Two lizards symbolise the evil that fights against Christ from the moment of His birth, and which he has to defeat in order to bring harmony and peace. We should understand Advent as a time in which our remembrance of Christ’s arrival in the world encourages us to take up our own fight against all restlessness and wickedness in our lives.
This will not work without an honest effort: And if we look closely, we see Joseph struggling to keep the donkey on his path, as we often fight against our own limitations; we also notice how Our Lady has sunk down on the donkey, obviously exhausted from the tiring journey. We are often tired of personal and professional duties and obligations; and looking at the vast landscape in Bruegel’s painting, we might feel discouraged by the long path that lies ahead.
However, these emotions of emptiness and darkness must not have the final say. We are not alone on our paths: Bruegel hides three other wanderers on the left side of his painting, which pave the way for the Holy Family; and most of us know someone who helps us carry the burden of life, and many of us bear at least a small part of someone else’s load. And of course, we have Christ, who carried all our afflictions when He put the cross on His shoulder; He came into this world to take our burden from us and to give us His own yoke, which is light and easy (Mt 11:30).
In this time of Advent, when we remember and look forward to His coming, let us stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near (Lk 21:28).”
I have a medical condition which causes me terrible nightmares. Not a guilty conscience or some unresolved issue, my soul is at peace; just a medical condition. I had no idea this being awakened from sleep first three to four, and then five to six times a night by these nightmares had anything to do with an otherwise known condition for which I was being treated. Oh, a year before this began, I read a story about Pope Francis having a sleeping St Joseph on his desk. I fell in love with the devotion immediately, and ordered one; St Joseph, the Protector, silent and attentive.
The idea, although I have never done this, I believe God already knows my cares and concerns better than I do and therefore does not need to be told, but the idea is to write down your cares, concerns, intentions, etc. and place those underneath the sleeping St Joseph and he will attend to them while you sleep. This comes from Scripture, where St Joseph received his revelations from God in his sleep.
With medication and understanding, my condition is much improved, although I still have unpleasant dreams. I have no doubt the nightmares would return if I stopped taking the medicine, but I am more able to sleep through the night, and I am not passing out at 8pm from lack of sleep which I thought was just getting older. I’m much more awake in the evenings, now. Deo gratias.
-“Joseph’s Dream” by Rembrandt 1645 or 1646, oil on mahogany panel, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany. Please click on the image for greater detail.
-by Br Joseph Bailham, OP, English Province
“The person of St Joseph is not generally the focus of a great deal of attention during this Advent and Christmas period, though admittedly he receives a great deal more attention now in the Mass readings than at any other time of the liturgical year!
There a few paintings around which depict St Joseph dreaming, a trait characteristic of him, but also of the Patriarch Joseph in the Old Testament. Having taken the name Joseph in religion, I have always felt somewhat obliged to embrace the yoke of this particular charism of sleeping and dreaming!
Unlike my dreaming, the dreams of St Joseph in Scripture are far more poignant. In the Gospel of Matthew we have four mentioned: in the first, ‘an angel of the Lord appeared to him… and said, “Joseph, son David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the One conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit;’ the second, when ‘an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream [and said], “Get up!… Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt… for Herod is going to search for the Child to kill Him;’ the third, when he is told to go back to the Land of Israel for Herod was now dead; and fourthly, being afraid to go back to the Land of Israel after he learned that the son of Herod, Archelaus, was now reigning in Judea, he was warned in a dream to withdraw to Galilee.
St Joseph is presented as the earthly guardian of Our Lord and Blessed Mother. In the Litany of St Joseph, he is referred to as ‘Head of the Holy Family,’ ‘Chaste Guardian of the Virgin,’ and, ‘Diligent Protector of Christ.’ His headship is intimately bound up with his guardianship of Our Lord and Lady. This is reflected in the dreams that St Joseph has: protecting and guarding Our Lord and Lady are at the heart.
I have a soft spot for St Joseph because he was much like us: he did not have two natures like Our Lord, nor was he immaculately conceived like Our Lady. But he was a just person, a good person, a holy person, all the things we can be if we but cooperate with God’s grace.
Paintings of St Joseph dreaming vary slightly, sometimes with Our Lady and the Christ child in the background, and other times just Our Lady alone (presumably representing the initial dream of taking Mary as his spouse). But when I look at these paintings of St Joseph dreaming, I often let my imagination run a little free and imagine what else he might be contemplating. Maybe he is pondering on the reality of what he has entered or is about to enter into: this rather unusual and wonderful family set-up. Maybe he is contemplating the weight of responsibility on his shoulders, and how he will best live up to his newfound vocation. What I see in these depictions of St Joseph dreaming is his pondering and meditating on the mystery before him, and its implications for his conduct in life. In this regard, I think he is a great model for us, especially in this season of Advent. Maybe like St Joseph, we can stop, close our eyes, and just ponder of the mystery before us, that the Eternal God has visited us; he has taken to himself a human nature and become incarnate as a child, born of a woman, in order to save us from our sins. Like St Joseph, we can ponder on the significance of this event for our own lives and conduct. What does this all ask of us?
We might do well at this holy time of the year to ask St Joseph to pray for us, that we, like him, may be able to protect and safeguard Our Lord and Lady. Of course, we have no need to protect them from historical Herod, but we do need to carve out a place in our hearts for them both, to be that inn with doors wide open. We need to protect their place in our lives from those ‘spiritual Herods’ which seek so often to kill them, to push them both out our view, offering us alternative and apparently easier paths in life, or things which inevitably fall short of what God actually offers us.
Joseph most just, most chaste, most prudent, most strong, most obedient, most faithful, pray for us in this holy season, and help us to ponder on the significance of the Incarnation of your foster Son, Our Lord Jesus, and help us to be, like you, guardians of Our Lord and Lady in our own lives and in the wider world today.”
St Joseph, Guardian of Jesus and Mary, pray for us!
The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is THE most visited Catholic shrine in the world. It is the third most visited sacred place in the world. On 12 December over nine million pilgrims will visit the Basilica to view the miraculously emblazoned tilma of St Juan Diego. Mary appears with dark skin, clothed in the imperial blue of Aztec royalty.
“Know for certain, littlest of my sons, that I am the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of the True God through Whom everything lives, the Lord of all things near and far, the Master of heaven and earth.
I wish and intensely desire that in this place my sanctuary be erected. Here I will demonstrate and exhibit and give all my love, my compassion, my help and my protection to the people. I am your merciful Mother. The merciful Mother of all of you who live united in this land, and of all mankind, of all those who love me. Here I will hear their weeping, their sorrow, and will remedy, and alleviate all their multiple sufferings, necessities and misfortunes.
Listen, put it into your heart, my youngest and dearest son, that the thing that frightens you, the thing that afflicts you, is nothing: do not let it disturb you…Am I not here, I who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need something more? Let nothing else worry you or disturb you.” – Words of Our Lady to St. Juan Diego, 12 December 1531, in his native Nahuatl language (the language of the Aztec Empire).
Miraculous Attributes of Our Lady of Guadalupe (St Juan Diego’s emblazoned tilma)
St Juan Diego, at the instruction of Our Lady of Guadalupe, was able to gather Castilian roses, not native to Mexico, to prove to Bishop Zumarraga, the verity of the apparition, in December, when flowers do not grow there.
2. The material of the tilma
The material of the tilma has maintained its chemical and structural integrity for almost 500 years. This is quite remarkable considering that most replicas of tilmas with the same chemical and structural composition last only 15 years before analyzable decomposition.
3. How the tilma was displayed
For its first 115 years, the tilma was displayed without protective glass and subjected to soot, candle wax, incense, and touching. There is currently no scientific explanation for its physical and chemical longevity.
4. Does not appear to be painted
Though there are several parts of the cloth which have been painted subsequent to the original image (e.g. the moon underneath the Virgin’s feet, the angel holding the cloth, and the rays coming from the image), the original image of the Virgin herself does not appear to have been painted by an artist.
There is no sketch underneath it, no brush strokes, no corrections, and it appears to have been produced in a single step. These features were identified by Dr. Philip Serna Callahan (biophysicist and NASA consultant) who photographed the image under infrared light.
5. The pigments used are unidentifiable
Nobel Prize winning biochemist, Richard Kuhn, analyzed a sample of the fabric and concluded that the pigments used were from no known natural source, whether animal, mineral, or vegetable. Given that there were no synthetic pigments in 1531, this enigma remains inexplicable.
6. The Lack of Decay
Dr. Philip Callahan also noted that the original image on the tilma had not cracked, flaked, or decayed in over 500 years, while the paint and gold leaf had flaked or deteriorated considerably. This phenomenon has still not yet been scientifically explained.
7. The Eyes on the Image
The eyes of the Virgin have three remarkable qualities that cannot be explained through known technology in 1531—and each would be difficult to replicate with today’s technology of computers, ophthalmologic knowledge, and digital photography:
Engineer, Jose Aste Tonsmann, has amplified an image of the pupils of the Blessed Virgin by 2500 times and can identify not only what appears to be the image of Bishop Zumarraga, but also 13 other individuals in both eyes at different proportions, just as the human eye would reflect an image. It appeared to be a snapshot of the very moment Juan Diego unfurled the tilma before the archbishop.
The images in the pupils also manifest the triple reflection called the Samson-Purkinje effect—which was completely unknown at the time of the image’s formation.
The image in the eyes of the Virgin follow the curvature of the cornea precisely in the way it occurs in a normal human eye.
Dr. Jorge Escalante Padilla a surgical ophthalmologist, considers these reflections to belong to the type which have been described by Cherney on the back surface of the cornea and by Watt & Hess at the center of the lens. Such reflections are very difficult to detect. Dr. Escalante also reported the discovery of small veins on both of the eyelids of the image. In the 1970s, a Japanese optician who was examining the eyes fainted. Upon recovering he stated: “The eyes were alive and looking at him.” [Janet Barber, Latest Scientific Findings on the Images in the Eyes, page 90.] Incredibly, when Our Lady’s eyes are exposed to light, the pupils contract. When the light is withdrawn, they return to a dilated state.
8. Qualities impossible to replicate
Made primarily of cactus fibers, a tilma was typically of very poor quality and had a rough surface, making it difficult enough to wear, much less to paint a lasting image on it.
Nevertheless, the image remains, and scientists who have studied the image insist there was no technique used beforehand to treat the surface. The surface bearing the image is reportedly like silk to the touch, while the unused portion of the tilma remains coarse.
What’s more, experts in infrared photography, studying the tilma in the late 1970s, determined that there were no brush strokes, as if the image was slapped onto the surface all at once.
Phillip Callahan, a biophysicist at the University of Florida, discovered that the differences in texture and coloration that cause cause Our Lady’s skin to look different up close and far away is impossible to recreate:
“Such a technique would be an impossible accomplishment in human hands. It often occurs in nature, however, in the coloring of bird feathers and butterfly scales, and on the elytra of brightly colored beetles … By slowly backing away from the painting, to a distance where the pigment and surface sculpturing blend together, the overwhelming beauty of the olive-colored Madonna emerges as if by magic.”
This, along with an iridescent quality of slightly changing colors depending on the angle at which a person looks, and the fact that the coloration in the image was determined to have no animal or mineral elements, and synthetic colorings didn’t exist in 1531, provide a lot of seemingly unanswerable questions.
9. Cannot be disproven
One of the first things skeptics say about the image is that it somehow has to be a forgery or a fraud. Yet in every attempt to replicate the image, while the original never seems to fade, the duplicates have deteriorated over a short time.
Miguel Cabrera, an artist in the mid-18th century who produced three of the best known copies – one for the archbishop, one for the pope, one for himself for later copies – once wrote about the difficulty of recreating the image even on the best surfaces:
“I believe that the most talented and careful painter, if he sets himself to copy this Sacred Image on a canvas of this poor quality, without using sizing, and attempting to imitate the four media employed, would at last after great and wearisome travail, admit that he had not succeeded. And this can be clearly verified in the numerous copies that have been made with the benefit of varnish, on the most carefully prepared canvases, and using only one medium, oil, which offers the greatest facility”;
Adolfo Orozco, a physicist at the National University of Mexico, spoke in 2009 about the remarkable preservation of the tilma compared to its numerous copies.
One copy created in 1789 was painted on a similar surface with the best techniques available at the time, then encased in glass and stored next to the actual tilma.
It looked beautiful when painted, but not eight years passed before the hot and humid climate of Mexico caused the duplicate to fade and fray. It was discarded.
However, Orozco said, no scientific explanation is possible for the fact that, “the original tilma was exposed for approximately 116 years without any kind of protection, receiving all the infrared and ultraviolet radiation from the tens of thousands of candles near it and exposed to the humid and salty air around the temple.”
10. The tilma has shown characteristics startlingly like a living human body.
In 1979, when Callahan, the Florida biophysicist, was analyzing the tilma using infrared technology, he apparently also discovered that the tilma maintains a constant temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the same as that of a living person. [Janet Barber, The Tilma and Its Miraculous Image.]
When Carlos Fernandez del Castillo, a Mexican gynecologist, examined the tilma, he first noticed a four-petaled flower over what was Mary’s womb.
The flower, called the Nahui Ollin by the Aztecs, was a symbol of the sun and a symbol of plenitude.
Upon further examination, Castillo concluded that the dimensions of Our Lady’s body in the image were that of an expectant mother due quite soon. Dec. 9, the day of the unveiling, is barely two weeks from Christmas.
Over the centuries, two separate events had the potential to harm the tilma, one in 1785 and one in 1921.
In 1785, a worker was cleaning the glass encasement of the image when he accidentally spilled strong nitric acid solvent onto a large portion of the image itself.
The image and the rest of the tilma, which should have been eaten away almost instantly by the spill, reportedly self-restored over the next 30 days, and it remains unscathed to this day, aside from small stains on the parts not bearing the image.
In 1921, an anti-clerical activist hid a bomb containing 29 sticks of dynamite in a pot of roses and placed it before the image inside the Basilica at Guadalupe.
When the bomb exploded, the marble altar rail and windows 150 feet shattered. A brass crucifix was twisted and bent out of shape. But the tilma and its glass case remained fully intact.
12. There is no under-sketch or under-drawing on the image.
Infrared photography has demonstrated that there is no sketching on the image whatsoever. Dr. Philip Callahan, a research biophysicist from the University of Florida explains: “It is inconceivable that an artist in the 16th Century would paint a portrait without first doing a drawing on it.” Making an under-sketch prior to painting a portrait goes back to antiquity. Such an exquisite depiction on textile made from cactus fiber is inexplicable given the lack of sketching.
13. The stars that appear on the image are astronomically correct.
In 1983 Dr. Juan Homero Hernandez and Fr. Mario Rojas Sánchez discovered that the stars on the image correspond precisely to the constellations of the winter sky on December 12th, 1531. Incredibly, the constellations are shown as viewed from outside the heavens, in other words in reverse. It is as if we have a picture from someone looking at it from outside the universe, it is a snapshot of heaven and earth from the very moment that Juan Diego saw Our Lady.
Also, the constellation Virgo, representing virginal purity, appears over the area of Mary’s heart signifying her immaculate and virginal purity, and the constellation Leo the lion is over her womb. The lion represents Jesus Christ, because Christ is the lion of the tribe of Judah. This emphasizes that Christ the King is present in Mary’s womb. The perfect placement of stars in their various constellations illustrates the infinite intelligence behind the miraculous image.
14. Mary assumes a different ethnicity depending on one’s vantage point.
It is remarkable that at one distance Our Lady appears to be a Native American, but at another distance she appears of European descent. This miraculous feature is meant to show the unity of the two peoples and the two cultures in light of the true faith of Christ. Mary implored the peoples of the New World to live as one.
Dr. Philip Callahan explains that the image achieves this effect of appearing to be different colors at different distances by a trait that is only seen in nature:
“At a distance of six or seven feet the skin tone becomes what might best be termed Indian olive, grey green in tone, it appears somehow the grey and caked looking white pigment of the face and the hands combines with the rough surface of the un-sized hue, such a technique would be an impossible accomplishment in human hands, it often occurs in nature however, in the coloring of the bird feathers and butterfly scales and on the elytra of brightly colored beetles.”
This change in color at different distances occurring in nature happens on the tilma in a miraculous way. The pigment combines with the rough surface of the cloth to impart alternating colorations. No human artist can duplicate this effect.
15. Patroness of the Unborn.
Among Our Lady of Guadalupe’s many designations, she is venerated as the patroness of the unborn. The image shows Mary as pregnant with Christ. She is an unmistakable witness to the sanctity of life and the protection of the unborn.
On April 24, 2007, an unusual luminosity in the famed image of Mary at the Shrine of Guadalupe in Mexico City immediately after that city legalized abortion became visible. According to one account: “At the end of the Mass, which was offered for aborted children… While many of the faithful were taking photographs of the tilma of Tepeyac, exposed and venerated in the Basilica… the image of the Virgin began to erase itself, to give place to an intense light which emanated from her abdomen, constituting a brilliant halo having the form of an embryo. Below, centered and enlarged, one can appreciate the location of the light which shone from the stomach of the Virgin and is not a reflection, or [otherwise] an artifact.”
Engineer, Luis Girault, who studied the picture and confirmed the authenticity of the negative, was able to specify that it had not been modified or altered, i.e: by superimposition of another image. He determined that the image does not come from any reflection, but originates from inside Mary. The produced light is very white, pure and intense, different from habitual photographic lights produced by flashes. The light, encircled with a halo, appears to float inside Mary’s abdomen. The halo has the form and measurements of an embryo. If we again examine the picture by making it turn in a sagittal plane, we perceive inside the halo some areas of shade that are characteristic of a human embryo in the maternal womb.”
-Santa Muerte in Aztec dress
-by Michelle Arnold, Catholic Answers
“In mid-December 1531, an indigenous Mexican man who had converted to Catholicism soon after the arrival of Franciscan missionaries set out to find a priest to hear the deathbed confession of his uncle. In doing so, Juan Diego decided to bypass his ordinary route in favor of one that would allow him to avoid meeting the mysterious lady who had been appearing to him for the past few days asking him to act as her emissary to the local bishop.
His plan didn’t work. The lady appeared again to him. When Juan Diego explained that he was seeking a priest to minister to his dying uncle, she replied, “Am I not here, I who am your mother?” She assured him his uncle was cured and gave him signs of her appearance, which the bishop had requested: winter roses and a miraculous image of herself impressed upon Juan Diego’s cloak or tilma.
The Virgin of Guadalupe
During the early years of the Church’s mission in Mexico, there were few conversions among the natives. Christianity was the religion of the Europeans; Our Lady of Guadalupe, though, was one of their own.
Our Lady appeared to a native man, an insignificant widower with little family and no influence, she spoke to him in his native language, she called herself his mother, and she charged him with speaking for her to the religious authorities in Mexico City. In the image of herself on the tilma, Our Lady appears as a native Mexican woman—one of high rank but adorned in symbols of the Aztec culture that had been suppressed by the Spanish. Within ten years of her apparitions to St. Juan Diego, nine million natives poured into the Church. In the centuries that followed, her image became one of the most important and enduring symbols of Mexican identity.
The rise of an “Anti-Virgin”
Recently, a new lady has arrived in Mexico and in US cities along the border, challenging the Virgin of Guadalupe for the devotion of certain segments of the Mexican people. She’s known by many affectionate titles, such as the Bony Lady and the White Sister, but she’s most commonly called Santa Muerte (Saint Death). Santa Muerte is a skeleton, androgynous in appearance but personified as feminine. Often she’s depicted wearing colorful robes and carrying a scythe, which gives her the appearance of a female Grim Reaper.
Devotion to Santa Muerte has exploded in the past few years. R. Andrew Chesnut, a religious studies professor and author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, The Skeleton Saint, estimates that Santa Muerte has gathered between ten to twelve million devotees—roughly the same number of native converts, within a comparable time span, who entered the Church in the decade following the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The dangers of Santa Muerte
To the extent that Santa Muerte is known in the United States, she has usually been seen as a perverse patroness of the drug cartels, but her influence actually is much wider. She’s considered a “folk saint” to those on the margins, a miracle worker for people who have not been well-catechized in their faith or who feel disaffected from the Church for various reasons. One woman who spoke with Chesnut said of Santa Muerte, “She understands us because she is a battle-ax . . . like us.”
Chesnut, initially interested in writing about Our Lady of Guadalupe before turning to Santa Muerte, said that “at first glance [Santa Muerte] seemed to be [Our Lady of Guadalupe’s] antithesis, a sort of anti-Virgin.” But he eventually dismissed this observation, and his book is sympathetic to Santa Muerte and her followers.
The allusion is chillingly apt, though: Santa Muerte is indeed an “anti-Virgin,” and the rise of devotion to her has alarmed bishops in Mexico and the US.
Bishop Michael J. Sis of San Angelo, Texas, said in a statement on his diocesan website:
“We must distinguish true saints from false saints and superstitions. . . . Rather than asking Santa Muerte for protection or favors, we should turn our life over to Jesus Christ, repent of our sins, make a sincere confession, follow God’s commandments, and trust in the grace of God. Catholics and other Christians should get rid of any Santa Muerte statues, candles, or other paraphernalia.
Some clergy have used stronger language than Bishop Sis in their denunciations of Santa Muerte. Fr. Andres Gutierrez of the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, told Catholic News Agency, “[Santa Muerte] is literally a demon with another name. . . . That’s what it is.” Fr. Gary Thomas, an exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose, California, told CNA, “I have had a number of people who have come to me as users of this practice and found themselves tied to a demon or demonic tribe.”
The battle for hearts
If Santa Muerte is, in fact, a distorted image of the Virgin of Guadalupe—if she is an anti-Virgin—then perhaps one of the keys to challenging devotion to her might be to present the true image of the Blessed Mother to the people she claimed for her own.
Our Lady of Guadalupe presented herself to Juan Diego as a native woman, speaking to him in his own language, arrayed in the symbols of his own culture. Although he protested to her that she should find someone more influential to take her message to the bishop, Our Lady lifted up a seemingly inconsequential man to speak to those in power on her behalf.
Santa Muerte is a skeleton who invites her followers to embrace death as an end in itself. But Our Lady of Guadalupe is shown to be pregnant with her divine Son. She is surrounded by the sun, the moon, and the stars, heavenly symbols that point us to our eternal destiny of union with God.
Santa Muerte is regarded as a miracle worker and is importuned for protection and favors. Our Lady of Guadalupe reminded Juan Diego that he had recourse to her in his troubles, not as an androgynous trickster performing wonders but as a loving mother who occasionally offers physical healing as a means of drawing all of her children to her divine Son, Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life for every human soul (John 14:6).
Our Lady of Guadalupe has been likened to the woman of Revelation 12, attacked by a dragon who wanted to snatch her child from her as soon as He was born. In that interpretation, Santa Muerte may be just one more means by which the dragon attempts to steal the children of the Virgin. In the end, though, we are assured that he will not succeed:
“The great dragon was thrown down . . . he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God” (Rev. 12:9–10).”
(The name ‘Satan’ comes from the Greek ‘satanas’, the accuser, the slanderer. The name ‘Devil’ comes from the Greek ‘diabolos’, the divider, the prince of lies.)
-Immaculate Conception, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1767-1769, oil on canvas, 281 × 155 cm (110.6 × 61 in), in the Museo del Prado, Spain. Please click on the image for greater detail.
-by Jimmy Akin, a former Presbyterian, Jimmy is a convert to the Faith and has an extensive background in the Bible, theology, the Church Fathers, philosophy, canon law, and liturgy.
“1. Why does the Church teach that Mary was immaculately conceived? Her conception is never even mentioned in Scripture.
Before presenting the scriptural foundations for the Church’s belief in Mary’s Immaculate Conception, know that the person who is posing this question to you is probably operating with the three following misconceptions: (1) The doctrine infringes upon the universality of Christ’s redemption and the unique holiness of God. (2) The Church has no scriptural foundation for the teaching. (3) If any doctrine is not in Scripture it must not be true. Any adequate defense of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception is incomplete unless all three of these areas are addressed.
The first issue that you need to cover is sola scriptura—the idea that the Bible is the only rule of faith. One of the reasons why our separated brethren have difficulty accepting certain Marian teachings is that they do not understand the scriptural role of sacred Tradition and the magisterium.
The Catholic Church was commissioned by Christ to teach all nations and to teach them infallibly—guided, as He promised, by the Holy Spirit until the end of the world (see John 14:25, 16:13). The mere fact that the Church teaches that something definitely true is a guarantee that it is true (see Luke 10:16).
Besides historical evidence and the authority of Tradition, several biblical texts can be offered. In Genesis 3:15, God states that there is to be an enmity between the “woman” and the serpent, and this enmity is shared between her seed and its seed. Her seed is the messiah, Who stands in opposition to the seed of the serpent. The mother of the messiah is said to share the same enmity—total opposition—with Satan.
If Mary, “the woman,” had any sin, then she would not be in complete opposition to the devil. Some argue that the “woman” refers to Eve, but this can not be the complete meaning of the text, as Eve is always associated with her collaboration with the serpent, not her opposition to him. Only Mary, the new Eve, fits the description of the woman in Genesis 3:15.
An implicit reference can also be found in the angel’s greeting to Mary in Luke 1:28: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” The phrase “full of grace” is a translation of the Greek word kecharitomene. This word represents the proper name of the person being addressed by the angel, and it therefore expresses a characteristic quality of Mary. Kecharitomene is a perfect passive participle of charitoo, meaning “to fill or endow with grace.” Since this term is in the perfect tense, it indicates a perfection of grace that is both intensive and extensive.
This means that the grace Mary enjoyed was not a result of the angel’s visit, and was not only as “full” or strong or complete as possible at any given time, but it extended over the whole of her life, from conception onward. She was in a state of sanctifying grace from the first moment of her existence to have been called “full of grace.”
Over the centuries, the Fathers and doctors of the Church spoke often about the fittingness of the privilege of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. The dogma is especially fitting when one examines the honor that was given to the Ark of the Covenant. It contained the manna (bread from heaven), stone tablets of the Ten Commandments (the word of God), and the staff of Aaron (an instrument of Israel’s redemption).
If this box was created with such honor—to carry a stick, some bread, and stone tablets—how much more should Mary be made a worthy dwelling place for God himself? She is the new Ark of the Covenant because she carried the real bread from heaven, the Word of God, and the instrument of our redemption, Jesus’ body.
Some argue that the new ark is not Mary but the body of Jesus. Even if this were the case, it is worth noting that 1 Chronicles 15:14 records that the persons who bore the ark were to be sanctified. There would seem to be no sense in sanctifying men who carried a box and not sanctifying the womb who carried the Holy One himself. After all, wisdom will not dwell “in a body under debt of sin” (Wis. 1:4 [NAB]).
2. If Mary is sinless, doesn’t that make her equal to God?
If this question is posed to you, it opens up a wonderful opportunity to show how the Immaculate Conception of Mary glorifies God.
Many people are under the impression that one is not quite human if he or she is sinless. On the contrary, it is when we sin that we fall short of what it means to be fully human. Since we are made in the image and likeness of God, we are called to love as God loves. This is why Christ fully reveals man to himself, as Vatican II says. He shows us what it means to be perfectly human.
In the beginning, God created no one (neither angel nor human) with sin, and yet no one was equal to God. When Adam and Eve sinned, they acted in a manner that was beneath their dignity as beings made in God’s image and likeness. It was their sin that detracted from the glory of God, not their original sinlessness. God’s goodness is most clear when he sanctifies his creation by entering into it fully with the life of his grace.
This is why the sinless souls in heaven give the most glory to God. The unique glory of the Trinity is manifested most clearly in heaven—where is he surrounded by sinless beings. In their sinlessness, God has made them most fully what he intended for them to be. In Mary’s case, her sinlessness gives the most glory to God, since his work is made perfect in her. She is his masterpiece.
3. How could Mary be sinless if in the words of the Magnificat she said that her soul rejoices in God her savior?
The Church does not hesitate to profess that Mary needed a savior. This should be the first issue to address if this question arises. It was by the grace of God—and not the work of Mary—that she was saved from sin in a most perfect manner. By what is called “preservative redemption,” Mary was preserved from sin at the time of her natural conception. John the Baptist was sanctified in the womb prior to his birth (Luke 1:15), and Mary was sanctified at her conception.
It is no difficulty that Christ distributed the grace of Calvary some forty-five years or so before it happened, just as he bestows it upon us 2,000 years after the fact. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that this gift was given to Mary, making her “redeemed in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son” (492). She has more reason to call God her Savior than we do, because he saved her in an even more glorious manner!
God can “save” a person from a sin by forgiving him or by providing him the grace never to fall into that particular sin. An ancient analogy is often useful to explain this: a person can be saved from a pit in two ways; one can fall into it and be brought out, or one can be caught before falling into it. Mankind is saved in the first manner, and Mary in the second. Both are saved from the pit of sin. If Jesus wished to save his mother from the stain of sin, what is to prevent him?
4. How can you reconcile Mary’s sinlessness with Paul’s statement that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God?
Though Paul is making a generalization of all humanity, Protestants and Catholics alike would agree that there are exceptions. For example, a child below the age of reason is not capable of committing actual sin. By definition he can’t sin, since sinning requires the ability to reason and the ability to intend to sin. This is indicated by Paul later in the epistle to the Romans when he speaks of the time when Jacob and Esau were unborn babies as a time when they “had done nothing either good or bad” (Rom. 9:11).
Jesus is another significant exception to the rule, having been exempt from actual and original sin (see Heb. 4:15). If Paul’s statement in Romans 3 includes an exception for the new Adam (Jesus), one may argue that an exception for the new Eve (Mary) can also be made.
5. Didn’t the Church just invent the doctrine 150 years ago?
Pope Pius IX officially defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. When Fundamentalists claim that the doctrine was “invented” at this time, they misunderstand both the history of dogmas and what prompts the Church to issue, from time to time, definitive pronouncements regarding faith or morals. They are under the impression that no doctrine is believed until the pope or an ecumenical council issues a formal statement about it.
Doctrines are defined formally only when there is a controversy that needs to be cleared up or when the magisterium (the Church in its office as teacher; see Matthew 28:18–20, 1 Timothy 3:15, 4:11) thinks the faithful can be helped by particular emphasis being drawn to some already existing belief. The definition of the Immaculate Conception was prompted by the latter motive; it did not come about because there were widespread doubts about the doctrine.
In fact, the Vatican was deluged with requests from people desiring the doctrine to be officially proclaimed. Pope Pius IX, who was highly devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, hoped the definition would inspire others in their devotion to her. By understanding the work that God has done in our Lady, all should have greater appreciation for both him and her. For if one member of the body is honored, all should share in its joy (see 1 Corinthians 12:26).”
-Immaculate Conception, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1767-1769, oil on canvas, 281 × 155 cm (110.6 × 61 in), in the Museo del Prado, Spain. Please click on the image for greater detail.
-by Tim Staples, Tim was raised a Southern Baptist. Although he fell away from the faith of his childhood, Tim came back to faith in Christ during his late teen years through the witness of Christian televangelists. Soon after, Tim joined the Marine Corps.
During his four-year tour, he became involved in ministry with various Assemblies of God communities. Immediately after his tour of duty, Tim enrolled in Jimmy Swaggart Bible College and became a youth minister in an Assembly of God community. During his final year in the Marines, however, Tim met a Marine who really knew his faith and challenged Tim to study Catholicism from Catholic and historical sources. That encounter sparked a two-year search for the truth. Tim was determined to prove Catholicism wrong, but he ended up studying his way to the last place he thought he would ever end up: the Catholic Church!
“In what is among the most simple and beautiful prayers in the Torah, Moses fervently prays for God to dwell “in the midst of” His people. It is a seemingly praiseworthy request, and yet God’s answer is a firm “no.” God’s refusal was not because of any lack of desire on His part; God’s will was always to dwell in the midst of His people. The problem was Israel’s sins.
The Lord said to Moses . . . Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go among you, lest I consume you in the way, for you are a stiff-necked people (Exod. 33:3).
For the Lord had said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, You are a stiff-necked people; if for a moment I should go up among you, I would consume you” (Exod. 33:5).
God says He could have dwelt among them—but He would have destroyed them if He had! And yet in spite of the dire warnings, Moses entreats the Lord anyway, in Exodus 34:9, with this prayer:
If now I have found favor in thy sight, O Lord, let the Lord, I pray thee, go in the midst of us, although it is a stiff-necked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Thy inheritance.
When I said Moses’ petition would not be granted, that was true, but incomplete. It would be more correct to say it would not be granted in his lifetime, or even in the context of the Mosaic Covenant. Because of the sins of Israel, God would only dwell in the Ark of the Covenant made of wood and gold, in the tabernacle in the wilderness, or later on in the temple. However, the God-inspired longing of Moses’ heart would one day be realized. Multiple prophets subsequent to the time of Moses prophesied God would indeed one day dwell in the midst of his people. But this ancient promise would only find its fulfillment in Jesus Christ… and in His mother.
Let us first consider the prophet Isaiah. In the first eight chapters of the book that bears his name, in good prophetic tradition, Isaiah brings a message of stern warning to Israel (and the surrounding nations) because of their abundant sins. But in later chapters we also see the promise of the coming Messiah. For our purpose we’ll focus on chapters eleven and twelve. You’ll want to take note of how many times the inspired author prophesies of that day, which refers to the coming of the Messiah and the New Covenant.
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 . . . In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples. . . In that day the Lord will extend His hand yet a second time to recover the remnant which is left of His people . . . You will say in that day: “I will give thanks to Thee, O Lord, for though You were angry with me, Your anger turned away . . . Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel” (11:1-2, 10-11; 12:1,6).
The promise of the Lord dwelling in the midst of Israel was just that—a promise for the future.
And we should further note that in Isaiah and elsewhere, “the inhabitant of Zion” is also referred to as “the daughter of Zion,” or even “the virgin daughter of Zion.” For example, in Isaiah 37:22, Isaiah prophesies against Assyria, who had conquered Israel:
[Assyria] despises you, she scorns you—the virgin daughter of Zion; she wags her head behind you—the daughter of Jerusalem (Isa. 37:22; Cf. Jer. 14:17; Lam. 2:13).
In Zephaniah, we find similar language. The Lord chastises Israel resoundingly for its sins, but then promises through the message of the prophet:
“Therefore wait for Me,” says the Lord, “for the day when I arise as a witness . . . On that day you shall not be put to shame . . .) For they shall pasture and lie down, and none shall make them afraid. Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem . . . The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst (3:8, 11, 13-15).
And finally, after urging Israel to repent of their sins, Zechariah also prophesies: “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion; for lo, I come and I will dwell in the midst of you, says the Lord” (Zech. 2:10).
We now fast-forward to Luke 1:28. When Luke records the greeting of the angel, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” There are two keys to understanding this text in relation to Mary as the fulfillment of the ancient “daughter of Zion” prophecies.
The Greek word for hail is kaire, which can also be translated rejoice. In fact, the New King James Version of the Bible translates it as, “Rejoice, highly favored one!” Because this “new name”—kecharitomene—is in the feminine, we could also translate it as “Rejoice, favored woman.”
The angel does not say “the Lord shall be with you;” he says, “The Lord is with you.”
Could this hearken back to the prophetic “daughter of Zion” prophecies of old? There is really no biblical way around it. The ancient prayer of Moses was definitively answered in and through what was likely to have been about a fifteen year-old young woman named Mary, and in a way beyond the wildest imaginings of the ancient prophets. Because of her “yes,” after all of those centuries in waiting, God would finally dwell “in the midst of his virgin Daughter of Zion.”
Indeed, this verse becomes an excellent example of what Scripture scholars refer to as the polyvalent or multi-layered nature of Scripture. The angel’s greeting not only signals that Mary is “full of grace,” but that she is the true “Daughter of Zion.”
So how does this relate to Mary being free from sin? We saw before that it was the sin of Israel that prevented God from dwelling “in the midst of” “the virgin daughter of Zion.” How fitting for the New Covenant Daughter of Zion—in the midst of whom the Lord would dwell bodily—to be free from all sin. The obstacle that kept God from dwelling in the midst of his people had been eliminated through Mary’s Immaculate Conception, and Mary becomes the archetype of the Church—“holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27).
On one level, since she was “full of grace” Mary was the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning the Daughter of Zion even before the Incarnation. And yet, there was more to come. Mary’s fullness of grace had prepared the New Covenant Daughter of Zion for something the Old Covenant people of God could never have fathomed. It was grace that made her fit to be a worthy vessel to bear the King of Glory in her body. The fulfillment of God’s promise would not be complete, then, until Mary conceived Jesus in her womb.
“[Rejoice], full of grace, the Lord is with you! . . . the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called . . . the Son of God” (Luke 1:28-35).
I suppose an entire volume could be written on the significance of these prophecies. But I will conclude our thoughts here with a section from the Catechism and its succinct teaching on the significance of Mary as Daughter of Zion, in whom God promised He would dwell:
The Holy Spirit prepared Mary by His grace. It was fitting that the mother of Him in Whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” should herself be “full of grace.” She was, by sheer grace, conceived without sin as the most humble of creatures, the most capable of welcoming the inexpressible gift of the Almighty. It was quite correct for the angel Gabriel to greet her as the “Daughter of Zion”: “Rejoice” (CCC 722).”
“Sometimes God works in mysterious ways that we can’t understand. We may not be sure what exactly it is God wants us to do. At other times God’s will for us can be painfully simple. I say simple because what God wants us to do can often be quite obvious. I say painfully because that obvious task is not necessarily easy. Sometimes, we would rather have God’s will for us be mysterious rather than pay the cost that the obvious task demands of us.
Saint Francis Xavier, one of the first members of the Jesuits, provides an excellent example of someone who followed God’s will for him when it was simple and straightforward. He did this despite the pains he would have to undergo. At the direction of St. Ignatius, St. Francis Xavier left Europe to accompany the Portuguese explorers and preach throughout India and eventually even Japan. It was not a complicated task to do as he was told. Saint Francis Xavier simply had to go to those people who had never heard the Gospel and preach to them. St. Ignatius’s instructions were nothing more than a reissuing of the Great Commission which Jesus gave to the Apostles: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). The task could hardly be simpler: preach the Gospel to those who have not heard it.
Yet, this was not an easy task even if St. Francis Xavier knew what he had to do to accomplish it. He had to learn multiple languages in order to translate the Creed and other basic prayers, which he would use to catechize these foreign peoples. He traveled far and frequently. He was often on his own during these travels. The trials were even physically demanding. We can see this from one letter he sent back to the Jesuits in Rome:
“As to the numbers who become Christians, you may understand them from this, that it often happens to me to be hardly able to use my hands from the fatigue of baptizing: often in a single day I have baptized whole villages. Sometimes I have lost my voice and strength altogether with repeating again and again the Credo and the other forms.” (quoted in The Life and Letters of St. Francis Xavier by Henry James Coleridge, S.J., 153)
Saint Francis Xavier, SJ, exemplifies the heroic virtue that allowed him to carry out day in and day out the simple, repetitive, sometimes even monotonous tasks to which God called him. Tasks that cost him a great deal of suffering. Sometimes, this is precisely the reminder that we need. God has called each and every one of us to do certain, simple tasks, most of which are not glamorous. These tasks are, nonetheless, the foundation of the Kingdom of God. The pain of these tasks for us may not be physical, it may be the pain of stepping out of our comfort zone or doing the job no one else wants to do. By being faithful in the obvious, repetitive, and sometimes distasteful tasks given to us, we can spread God’s love to the world one person at a time.
Eventually, St. Francis Xavier would die at the age of 46 from a fever while waiting for a boat to take him to China. This seems like a rather prosaic death for a saint who had served God so fervently. He did not die a martyr’s death. Instead, he bore witness to God by his arduous labor at a task he could never hope to complete in his lifetime. It was a task that wore him to the bone and ate away at his health, but he embraced it joyfully.
Most of those he preached to were eager to receive the Gospel and only needed someone to preach it to them. Likewise, there are many people in our lives who are ready to hear the Gospel if they only had someone to bring it to them. What will preaching the Gospel cost us?Are we, like St. Francis Xavier, willing to embrace the attendant hardships with joy? Can we be like Jesus who “for the sake of the joy that lay before him . . . endured the cross”(Heb 12:2)?
-Pilgrims pray by and view the body of St Francis Xavier during an exposition of the saint in December 2004. Please click on the image for greater detail.
-missionary journeys of St Francis Xavier, SJ, (1541-1552). Please click on the image for greater detail.
“There is a story about how St. John of the Cross celebrated Christmas: “On Christmas day . . . St. John of the Cross, while at ease with his brethren at recreation, took the image of the Holy Infant from the Crib and danced round the room, singing all the while: “Mi dulce y tierno Jesús/‘My sweet and tender Jesus,/ If Thy dear love can slay,/ It is today’”. The austere Carmelite mystic of the sixteenth century, known for his spiritual writings and his reform of the Carmelite Order, burst out in song and dance like Davidbefore the Ark of the Covenant. God’s presence sometimes makes great men childlike, even giddy.
Saint John of the Cross, however, as his name suggests, knew something of the brutality of life as well. Some of his Carmelite brethren went so far as to imprison him and publicly punish him out of opposition to his reforms. And through the sufferings, St. John held fast to Christ. As he exclaims in Counsels of Light and Love, “Thou wilt not take from me, my God, that which once thou gavest me in Thine only Son Jesus Christ, in Whom Thou gavest me all that I desire; wherefore I shall rejoice that Thou wilt not tarry if I wait for Thee” (71–2). The Incarnation fulfills all our desires—if only we will ponder the manger in wonder. The baby Jesus is God’s perfect gift to us—if only we will wait patiently for His greatness to be manifest in our lives.
In watching and waiting in Advent, we wonder at how small the beginnings of our redemption seem. Even now redemption can seem far from our world: “O sweetest love of God that art so little known” (Counsels, 68). The reign of God burst into the world in the meekest of ways: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.” Now we prepare to see the babe in the manger, the silent work of God. We know that the Incarnation happened, that our “redemption is drawing near” -Lk 21:28
In the sure promise of redemption, the austerity and the name of St. John of the Cross begins to make sense. In the quiet of Bethlehem, God prepares for the crowds of Jerusalem. We begin with Him at the manger in Bethlehem and follow Him to the hill of Golgotha. God purifies our worldly desires as we take up the cross and follow Him. What begins in love, remains in love, and ends in love: ‘My sweet and tender Jesus,/ If Thy dear love can slay,/ It is today.'”
Literally, this means: “Not from man’s seed / But by the mystic spirit / The Word of God was made man / And the fruit of the womb sprung forth.” Spiramine, “spirit” also means “breath.” The breath of life once breathed into Adam is now breathed upon Mary. The Holy Spirit creates (On the Mysteries, 2.5). Unlike everyone else, Jesus is conceived by an act of God without bodily contact (On Virginity, II.2.7), just as the world was created without pre-existing matter.The incarnation is a sort of re-creation in the world, so that fallen nature may be redeemed. In the original creation, God made man in His own image. In the fullness of time, He created a body for Himself. This meeting of heaven and earth, God’s complete gift of Himself, happens in the womb of Mary.
The Holy Spirit is also the revealer. Ambrose tells us that the same cloud which led the Hebrews out of Egypt came to rest finally upon the Virgin Mary, in whom He conceived His Son. (On the Mysteries, 3.13) This cloud that led the Hebrews over the Red Sea brought them to rest at Mount Sinai, where the law was revealed to Moses. This law was the fullest revelation of God up to that point in history. This is fulfilled in the Word of God, Who is the New Law, conceived in Mary’s womb. The Holy Spirit reveals God to us in history through Mary.
Mary participates in a very special way in both creation and revelation by agreeing to bear the Son of God. Before Mary conceived the God-man in her womb, however, she beheld Him in prayer. In his work, On Virginity, Ambrose presents her as a model for consecrated virgins:
“She was a virgin not only in body but also in mind…humble in heart, grave in speech, prudent in mind, sparing of words, studious in reading, resting her hope not on uncertain riches, but on the prayer of the poor, intent on work, modest in discourse; wont to seek not man but God as the judge of her thoughts, to injure no one, to have goodwill towards all, to rise up before her elders, not to envy her equals, to avoid boastfulness, to follow reason, to love virtue.” (On Virginity, II.2.7)
Her soul was given entirely to prayer. When the Angel Gabriel came to announce to her the birth of Jesus, he found her alone, with nothing distracting her from her contemplation (On Virginity, II.2.10). Her contemplation continues after she gives birth. As Luke tells us, “Mary kept all these things in her heart.” (Lk 2:19, On Virginity, II.2.13)
We can learn from Mary’s habit of contemplation. We, too, are called to ponder in our hearts the mysteries revealed to us. During this season of Advent, as we prepare to commemorate the coming of the Redeemer of nations, it is opportune to take on small penances and remove distractions from our lives so that we can give ourselves especially over to prayer. But our contemplation must not only look backward. It prepares us for death, and our entry into our heavenly homeland, where together with Mary and Ambrose and all the angels and saints, we will contemplate the Holy Trinity for eternity.”
-detail of Une Scene du Massacre des Innocents (A Scene of the Massacre of the Innocents), Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre (1714-1789), undated
[Feast of the Holy Innocents, also called Childermas, or Innocents’ Day, festival celebrated in the Christian churches in the West on December 28 and in the Eastern churches on December 29 and commemorating the massacre of the children by King Herod in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:16–18). These children were regarded by the early church as the first martyrs, but it is uncertain when the day was first kept as a saint’s day. At first it may have been celebrated with Epiphany, but by the 5th century it was kept as a separate festival. In Rome it was a day of fasting and mourning.
It was one of a series of days known as the Feast of Fools, and the last day of authority for boy bishops. Parents temporarily abdicated authority. In convents and monasteries the youngest nun and monk were allowed to act as abbess and abbot for the day. These customs, which mocked religion, were condemned by the Council of Basel (1431).
In medieval England the children were reminded of the mournfulness of the day by being whipped in bed in the morning; this custom survived into the 17th century.
The day is still observed as a feast day and, in Roman Catholic countries, as a day of merrymaking for children.]
-partially restored and enhanced St Quodvultdeus mosaic portrait (San Gennaro catacombs, Naples), Unknown artist, 5th century
-from a sermon by Saint Quodvultdeus, bishop (Sermo 2 de Symbolo: PL 40, 655) and spiritual student or “directee”, friend, and correspondent of St. Augustine, Second Reading, Office of Readings, Liturgy of the Hours for December 28th, Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs.
“A tiny child is born, Who is a great king. Wise men are led to Him from afar [Matthew 2:1]. They come to adore One Who lies in a manger and yet reigns in heaven and on earth. When they tell of One Who is born a king, Herod is disturbed [cf Matthew 2:3]. To save his kingdom he resolves to kill Him, though if he would have faith in the Child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and for ever in the life to come.
Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this you are disturbed and in a rage, and to destroy one child Whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the death of so many children.
You are not restrained by the love of weeping mothers or fathers mourning the deaths of their sons, nor by the cries and sobs of the children. You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart. You imagine that if you accomplish your desire you can prolong your own life, though you are seeking to kill Life Himself.
Yet your throne is threatened by the source of grace – so small, yet so great – Who is lying in the manger. He is using you, all unaware of it, to work out His own purposes freeing souls from captivity to the devil. He has taken up the sons of the enemy into the ranks of God’s adopted children.
The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The Child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to Himself. See the kind of kingdom that is His, coming as He did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the savior already working salvation.
But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed and furious. While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying Him homage, and do not know it.
How great a gift of grace is here! To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.”
What Aquinas is for the Latin or Western Church, John of Damascus is for the Eastern Church. Saint John of Damascus was born about the year 680 at Damascus, Syria into a Christian family. His father, Sergius Mansur, was a treasurer at the court of the Caliph. John had also a foster brother, the orphaned child Cosmas (October 14), whom Sergius had taken into his own home. When the children were growing up, Sergius saw that they received a good education. At the Damascus slave market he ransomed the learned monk Cosmas of Calabria from captivity and entrusted to him the teaching of his children. The boys displayed uncommon ability and readily mastered their courses of the secular and spiritual sciences. After the death of his father, John occupied ministerial posts at court and became the city prefect.
In Constantinople at that time, the heresy of Iconoclasm had arisen and quickly spread, supported by the emperor Leo III the Isaurian (717-741). Rising up in defense of the veneration of icons [Iconodoulia], Saint John wrote three treatises entitled, “Against Those who Revile the Holy Icons.” The wise and God-inspired writings of Saint John enraged the emperor. But since the author was not a Byzantine subject, the emperor was unable to lock him up in prison, or to execute him. The emperor then resorted to slander. A forged letter to the emperor was produced, supposedly from John, in which the Damascus official was supposed to have offered his help to Leo in conquering the Syrian capital.
This letter and another hypocritically flattering note were sent to the Saracen Caliph by Leo the Isaurian. The Caliph immediately ordered that Saint John be removed from his post, that his right hand be cut off, and that he be led through the city in chains.
That same evening, they returned the severed hand to Saint John. The saint pressed it to his wrist and prayed to the Most Holy Theotokos to heal him so that he could defend the Faith and write once again in praise of the Most Pure Virgin and Her Son. After a time, he fell asleep before the icon of the Mother of God. He heard Her voice telling him that he had been healed, and commanding him to toil unceasingly with his restored hand. Upon awakening, he found that his hand had been attached to his arm once more. Only a small red mark around his wrist remained as a sign of the miracle.
Later, in thanksgiving for being healed, Saint John had a silver model of his hand attached to the icon, which became known as “Of the Three Hands.” Some unlearned painters have given the Mother of God three hands instead of depicting the silver model of Saint John’s hand. The Icon “Of the Three Hands” is commemorated on June 28 and July 12.
When he learned of the miracle, which demonstrated John’s innocence, the Caliph asked his forgiveness and wanted to restore him to his former office, but the saint refused. He gave away his riches to the poor, and went to Jerusalem with his stepbrother and fellow-student, Cosmas. There he entered the monastery of Saint Sava the Sanctified as a simple novice.
It was not easy for him to find a spiritual guide, because all the monks were daunted by his great learning and by his former rank. Only one very experienced Elder, who had the skill to foster the spirit of obedience and humility in a student, would consent to do this. The Elder forbade John to do anything at all according to his own will. He also instructed him to offer to God all his labors and supplications as a perfect sacrifice, and to shed tears which would wash away the sins of his former life.
Once, he sent the novice to Damascus to sell baskets made at the monastery, and commanded him to sell them at a certain inflated price, far above their actual value. He undertook the long journey under the searing sun, dressed in rags. No one in the city recognized the former official of Damascus, for his appearance had been changed by prolonged fasting and ascetic labors. However, Saint John was recognized by his former house steward, who bought all the baskets at the asking price, showing compassion on him for his apparent poverty.
One of the monks happened to die, and his brother begged Saint John to compose something consoling for the burial service. Saint John refused for a long time, but out of pity he yielded to the petition of the grief-stricken monk, and wrote his renowned funeral troparia (“What earthly delight,” “All human vanity,” and others). For this disobedience the Elder banished him from his cell. John fell at his feet and asked to be forgiven, but the Elder remained unyielding. All the monks began to plead for him to allow John to return, but he refused. Then one of the monks asked the Elder to impose a penance on John, and to forgive him if he fulfilled it. The Elder said, “If John wishes to be forgiven, let him wash out all the chamber pots in the lavra, and clean the monastery latrines with his bare hands.”
John rejoiced and eagerly ran to accomplish his shameful task. After a certain while, the Elder was commanded in a vision by the All-Pure and Most Holy Theotokos to allow Saint John to write again. When the Patriarch of Jerusalem heard of Saint John, he ordained him priest and made him a preacher at his cathedral. But St John soon returned to the Lavra of Saint Sava, where he spent the rest of his life writing spiritual books and church hymns. He left the monastery only to denounce the iconoclasts at the Constantinople Council of 754. They subjected him to imprisonment and torture, but he endured everything, and through the mercy of God he remained alive. He died in about the year 780, more than 100 years old.
Saint John of Damascus was a theologian and a zealous defender of the Faith. His most important book is the Fount of Knowledge. The third section of this work, “On the Orthodox Faith,” is a summary of Christian doctrine and a refutation of heresy. Since he was known as a hymnographer, we pray to Saint John for help in the study of church singing.
“Even though your most holy and blessed soul was separated from your most happy and immaculate body, according to the usual course of nature, and even though it was carried to a proper burial place, nevertheless it did not remain under the dominion of death, nor was it destroyed by corruption. Indeed, just as her virginity remained intact when she gave birth, so her body, even after death, was preserved from decay and transferred to a better and more divine dwelling place. There it is no longer subject to death but abides for all ages.” -St John Damascene, First Homily on the Dormition (of Mary)
Troparion — Tone 8
Champion of Orthodoxy, teacher of purity and of true worship, / the enlightener of the universe and the adornment of hierarchs: / all-wise father John, your teachings have gleamed with light upon all things. / Intercede before Christ God to save our souls.
Kontakion — Tone 4
Let us sing praises to John, worthy of great honor, / the composer of hymns, the star and teacher of the Church, the defender of her doctrines: / through the might of the Lord’s Cross he overcame heretical error / and as a fervent intercessor before God / he entreats that forgiveness of sins may be granted to all.
Prayer Of St. John Damascene
“Having confidence in you, O Mother of God, I shall be saved. Being under you protection, I shall fear nothing. With your help I shall give battle to my enemies and put them to flight for devotion to you is an arm of Salvation. Amen.”
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, “You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine