Category Archives: Liturgy

Feb 6 – Twenty-six crosses on a hill & “Silence”, the movie: love is stronger than death, 日本二十六聖人, Nihon Nijūroku Seijin


-1628 engraving, please click on the image for greater detail


-monument to the 26 martyrs of Nagasaki, 1962, please click on the image for greater detail

With the Oscars last night, will Hollywood ever tell this story, instead of apostasy? I doubt it. One of the reasons I started this blog, to, in my own small way, tell the brilliance of saints. When Christian missionaries returned to Japan 250 years later, they found a community of “hidden Catholics” that had survived underground.

Jn 11:25


-by Matthew E. Bunson

“A group of twenty-six Christians gave their lives for Christ on a hill near Nagasaki, Japan, on February 5, 1597. They are noteworthy not only for the zeal they showed as they died as martyrs, but for the model they provided to Japanese Christians for centuries to come. Their story reminds us that heroic examples of the Catholic faith transcend country and race.

Jesuit Beginnings

The Catholic faith was introduced into Japan on August 15, 1549 by the great Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier, SJ, who landed on the Japanese island of Kyushu with two fellow Jesuits, Cosme de Torres, SJ, and John Fernandez, SJ. Francis soon learned of the prevailing political situation. Despite the emperor’s traditionally accepted divine origins, he had little authority; instead the local lords (daimyo) exercised extensive powers. Francis concentrated on winning the confidence of the daimyo in the area, and on September 29, he visited Shimazu Takahisa, the daimyo of Kagoshima, and asked for permission to build the first Catholic mission in Japan. The daimyo readily agreed to his request, believing that such a church might help to establish a trade relationship with Europe.

Francis mastered Japanese, then took his preaching into the neighboring island of Honshu, the main island in the Japanese archipelago. Within six years, six hundred Japanese converted to the faith in one province alone. But the rapid growth of the new faith soon provoked a sharp reaction. In 1561, the daimyo of several provinces launched a persecution that compelled Christians to abjure their faith.

Surprisingly, the Shogunate of Japan initially gave its support to the enterprise of evangelization. Primarily the shoguns believed the new religion might curb the influence of the sometimes-troublesome Buddhist monks in the islands, but they also thought it would facilitate trade with the outside world. Nevertheless, the Japanese officials were suspicious of the long-term intentions of the representatives of Spain and Portugal, most so because they were aware of the expanding Spanish Empire in Asia and the Pacific.

The labors of Francis Xavier were carried on and furthered by the Jesuit Alessandro Valignano, who arrived in 1579. This remarkable missionary opened a school to teach new mission workers, established seminaries, and promoted vocations for the Jesuits among the inhabitants. By around 1580, eighty missionaries were caring for more than one hundred fifty-thousand Christians, including the daimyo Arima Harunobu.

In Rome, Pope Gregory XIII declared his immense satisfaction with the work of the Jesuits and issued the decreed Ex Pastorale Officio in 1585. He declared that the Japanese missions were the exclusive territory of the Society of Jesus. Two years later, the first diocese was created at Funai (modern Oita).


-St Francisco Blanco OFM, Lima, Peru, please click on the image for greater detail”

Change in Politics

Several events soon transpired that changed the tolerant atmosphere. First, assorted Catholic missionaries who lacked the subtlety of the Jesuits arrived in Japan and failed to respect Pope Gregory’s decree. Their aggressive manner offended many Japanese, especially those who feared that Christianity was merely a prelude to invasion by the European powers. Thus, by 1587, when there were over 200,000 Christians in Japan, an initial edict of persecution was instituted by the country’s regent, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Nearly 150 churches were destroyed and missionaries were condemned to exile from the islands. The missionaries declined to leave and found safe haven in various parts of Japan. As a result of the persecution, within a decade the number of Christians had increased by 100,000.

The second major turning point occurred on August 26, 1596, when the San Felipe, a Spanish trade ship traveling from Manila to North America, ran aground off the coast of Shikoku, the southeastern island of Japan. Angered by the violation of Japanese territory, Hideyoshi ordered that the cargo be confiscated, and among the items seized were several cannons. The discovery alarmed Japanese officials, and the ship’s pilot made matters worse. Furious over the loss of his cargo, he threatened the Japanese with military action by Spain, an invasion, he claimed, that would be assisted by the Christian missionaries in the country.

The threats were complete fabrications, of course, but Hideyoshi used the occasion to seize the ship and then to launch the first major anti-Christian persecution in the history of Japan. In 1597, the same year as the arrival of the first bishop, Pierre Martinez, S.J., the government launched its pogrom. The Christian religion was banned, and those who refused to abjure the faith were to be condemned to death.

The initial public execution took place at Nagasaki, a city that had become the center of the Christian faith in Japan. The first martyrs were Paul Miki and his companions.


-drawing remembering 26 Catholic martyrs of Nagasaki, please click on the image for greater detail

Marked for Death

Born around 1564, Paul Miki was the son of a Japanese soldier, Miki Handayu. He was educated by the Jesuits and joined the Society of Jesus in 1580, the first Japanese to enter any religious order. Paul swiftly earned a reputation for the eloquence of his preaching. He was on the verge of ordination when he was arrested and thrown together with twenty-four other Catholics condemned to die in the name of the emperor. With Paul were six European Franciscan missionaries, two other Japanese Jesuits and sixteen Japanese laymen. The laymen included Cosmas Takeya, a sword maker; Paul Ibaraki, a member of a distinguished samurai family; and his brother Leo Karasumaru, who had been a Buddhist monk. Also arrested were Louis Ibaraki, twelve, a nephew of Paul Ibaraki and Leo Karasumaru; and thirteen-year-old Anthony of Nagasaki.

The martyrs were assembled at Kyoto, condemned to die, and then ordered to be taken to Nagasaki for their execution. As was customary, the prisoners had their left ears cut off prior to setting out so that they would be marked as condemned. The march to Nagasaki lasted a month. Along the way the men suffered the tortures of their captors and the jibes of crowds, but they also won the respect of many onlookers as they marched, bleeding and exhausted but still praying and singing. One Japanese Christian layman named Francis—a carpenter from Kyoto—decided to follow the martyrs as they progressed until he was arrested himself and expressed his joy at being included among them.

After the grueling trek from Kyoto, the condemned arrived at last at the place of their martyrdom, the city of Nagasaki. At ten in the morning on February 5, they were led along the highway from Tokitsu to Omura, and then commanded to stop at a small cluster of hills at the base of Mount Kompira. At the lowest of these hills, called Nishizaka, common criminals were put to death, and the lingering smell of rotting corpses could be detected. All was in readiness: Twenty-six crosses awaited the Christians.

Seeing the horrendous surroundings, several Portuguese merchants went to the brother of the governor, Terazawa Hazaburo, and asked him to intervene and at least have the place of execution moved. The governor, Ierazawa Hazaburo, was willing to listen to their plea, especially as his brother was a friend of Paul Miki. As it happened, across the road from the hill of Nishizaka was a lovely field of wheat, and the governor decreed that the executions could be carried out there.


-crucifixion of the martyrs of Nagasaki. A painting in the Franciscan convent of the Lady of the Snows in Prague, please click on the image for greater detail.

Calm amid Horror

At the wheat field, the martyrs were divided by the soldiers into three groups, each one headed by a Franciscan reciting the rosary. Each of the martyrs had his own cross, the wood cut to his height. Gonzalo Garcia, the forty-year-old Franciscan lay brother from India, was the first to be led to his cross. He was shown the instrument of his imminent death, and he knelt to kiss it. Today, he is venerated as the patron saint of Mumbai. Following his example, the martyrs one by one embraced the wooden crosses before them.

Unlike the Romans, the Japanese officials did not use nails. Instead, they fixed the martyrs to their crosses by iron rings around the neck, hands, and feet and ropes tightly binding the waist. The one exception was the Spanish Franciscan priest, Peter Bautista, Superior of the Franciscan Mission in Japan. This former ambassador from Spain (who had devoted his ministry for some years to lepers) stretched out his hands and instructed the executioners to use nails. Paul Miki, meanwhile, proved shorter than his cross had been measured. As his feet did not reach the lower rings, the executioners tied him down at the chest with rope and linens.

With their victims affixed, the soldiers and executioners simultaneously lifted the crosses. As history has demonstrated many times before and after, the crowd that had gathered for amusement at the expense of the dying fell silent as the large crosses thudded into the holes in the earth and the martyrs exhaled in agony from the jarring drop. On the hill with them were four thousand Catholics from Nagasaki. Young Anthony looked down and beheld his family at the front of the crowd, and he spoke words of hope to them.

Then, just as each had embraced his cross, the martyrs one by one began to sing hymns of praise, the Te Deum and the Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus. The victims struggled to sing and to raise their voices to God one last time. From his cross, Paul Miki also preached for the last time. Seeing the edict of death hanging from one soldier’s long, curved spear for all to see, he responded to the charge, his voice carrying across the hills:

I did not come from the Philippines. I am a Japanese by birth, and a brother of the Society of Jesus. I have committed no crime, and the only reason why I am put to death is that I have been teaching the doctrine of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I am very happy to die for such a cause, and see my death as a great blessing from the Lord. At this critical time, when you can rest assured that I will not try to deceive you, I want to stress and make it unmistakably clear that man can find no way to salvation other than the Christian way. (Luis Frois, Martyrs’ Records)

And then the martyrs began their final minutes. The first to die was the Mexican Franciscan Brother Philip de Jesus, who had also been measured incorrectly, so his entire weight was placed on the ring around his neck. He slowly choked to death, until the order was given for two soldiers to pierce his chest on either side with their spears. The soldiers, in pairs, thrust their spears into each side of the remaining victims until the blades literally crossed each other. Death was virtually instantaneous. The martyrs accepted their end with the same prayerful calm that marked their ascent upon the crosses. The gathered crowd, however, cried out in anguish, and the din could be heard in the city of Nagasaki below. Many Japanese who watched the horror unfold became Christians themselves in the coming weeks and months. For the soldiers, the scene proved too much, and many began to weep at the courage of the dead Christians, especially young Louis Ibaraki who cried out, “Jesus . . . Mary” with his last breath.

With the execution over, the Christians in the crowd surged forward to soak up the blood of the martyrs in cloths and to remove small pieces of clothing to preserve as relics. Driven away forcibly by the guards, the crowds slowly dispersed, turning back to see the last rays of the sun framing the twenty-six crosses in stark relief.


-Catholic martyrs of Nagasaki, please click on the image for greater detail

Love is Stronger than Death

After dark, more people gathered. Christians from Nagasaki arrived to pray for the martyrs. In the days following, thousands more made a pilgrimage to the site. Peasants, local daimyo, soldiers, and foreigners stopped at the hill and remained there transfixed in prayer or amazement until the guards forced them away. Word spread across Japan, and the example of the twenty-six martyrs became the rallying cry for Christians.

The people of Nagasaki christened Nishizaka the “Martyrs’ Hill.” The next year, an ambassador from the Philippines was given permission by Toyotomi Hideyoshi to gather up the remains and the crosses. Pilgrims continued to visit the site, and the best efforts of officials could not stop new visits, both public and clandestine.

Paul Miki and his Companions proved the first of many thousands of martyrs in the church of Japan. Sporadic persecutions were conducted over subsequent years, erupting in 1613 under the sharp campaign of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616), who considered Christianity to be detrimental to the good of Japan and the social order he was instituting. The next year, all missionaries were expelled and Japanese converts were commanded to abjure the faith. Long-simmering resentment against the persecutions culminated in a Christian uprising in 1637. This was mercilessly put down, and the once-flourishing Church in Japan seemed dead. Foreigners were forbidden to enter the country on pain of death.

The Church outside of Japan did not forget Paul Miki and his companions. The Twenty-Six Martyrs were beatified on September 15, 1627 under Pope Urban VIII, and they were canonized in 1862 by Pope Blessed Pius IX, making them the first canonized martyrs of the Far East. But then came a truly astonishing turn of events. In 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States arrived in Japan, and for the first time in two centuries, the country established official contact with the outside world. To the utter shock of Westerners, the Japanese Christians had not abandoned the faith despite brutal persecution. For two centuries, they had practiced the faith in secret. In 1865, priests from the Foreign Missions discovered twenty thousand Christians on the island of Kyushu alone. Religious liberty was at last granted in 1873 by the imperial government. What had sustained these Christians in the long dark years was their trust in Christ and the examples of those who had died for the faith. Foremost in their memory were the Twenty-Six Martyrs upon Nishizaka Hill.

Today, the site of the Twenty-Six Martyrs remains a beloved place of pilgrimage, and they are honored by the Monument of the 26 Martyrs erected in 1962, as well as a shrine and a museum. Thousands of visitors arrive every year. One of them, in 1981, was Pope John Paul II. He declared during his visit:

“On Nishizaka, on February 5, 1597, twenty-six martyrs testified to the power of the Cross; they were the first of a rich harvest of martyrs, for many more would subsequently hallow this ground with their suffering and death. . . . Today, I come to the Martyrs’ Hill to bear witness to the primacy of love in the world. In this holy place, people of all walks of life gave proof that love is stronger than death.

Foreign Franciscan missionaries – Alcantarines

Saint Martin of the Ascension
Saint Pedro Bautista
Saint Philip of Jesus
Saint Francisco Blanco
Saint Francisco of Saint Michael
Saint Gundisalvus (Gonsalvo) Garcia

Japanese Franciscan tertiaries

Saint Antony Dainan
Saint Bonaventure of Miyako
Saint Cosmas Takeya
Saint Francisco of Nagasaki
Saint Francis Kichi
Saint Gabriel de Duisco
Saint Joachim Sakakibara
Saint John Kisaka
Saint Leo Karasumaru
Saint Louis Ibaraki
Saint Matthias of Miyako
Saint Michael Kozaki
Saint Paul Ibaraki
Saint Paul Suzuki
Saint Pedro Sukejiroo
Saint Thomas Kozaki
Saint Thomas Xico

Japanese Jesuits

Saint James Kisai
Saint John Soan de Goto
Saint Paul Miki

O God our Father, source of strength to all your saints, Who brought the holy martyrs of Japan through the suffering of the cross to the joys of life eternal: Grant that we, being encouraged by their example, may hold fast the faith we profess, even to death itself; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Love of Him,
Matthew

Feb 2 – Candlemas


-by Br Nicodemus Thomas, OP

“Whether it is a candlelit meal at a fancy restaurant, a birthday celebration with a candle-topped cake, or the procession of the paschal candle at the Easter Vigil, candles are a clear sign of solemnity. We usually sense something different, even quasi-religious, on the occasions that candles are used—think, for another instance, of candles lit at the vigils of societal tragedies and untimely deaths. Suffice to say, candles are objects with rich, religious symbolism.

To understand the religious symbolism of candles, we must first recognize the natural qualities present in candles. There are three qualities of candles we immediately observe: their light, their flame, and their total consumption. By briefly examining these three qualities, we will grasp more deeply the way candles symbolize Christ.

The most obvious characteristic of a candle is its light. In fact, its original purpose was just that—to provide light. We have a foundational desire to know and this desire drives us to seek the light of truth, especially since sight is the most obvious way to knowledge. In the Christian realm, this is no less true. In fact, Christ says as much. He claims to be, “the light of the world” (John 8:12). Through his presence in our souls by faith, he illumines the darkness of our minds so that we may begin to see him as he is (c.f., 1 John 3:2).

A candle, by its flame, is also able to represent love. We draw in this symbolism explicitly when we pray “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of thy faithful and enkindle in them the fire of thy love…” A candle’s flame can remind believers of the flame of charity present in their hearts. This is one reason the Church gives candles to the newly baptized and why we all carry candles during the Easter Vigil; the flame represents the work of God in our souls. While we may not see God clearly in this life, the flame of charity allows us to cherish God’s presence in our souls.

Finally, in order to produce the light and flame the candle must be consumed. Our Lord, in shining the light of faith in our intellects and kindling the fire of charity into our hearts, was himself consumed in his humanity—he died that we might have life. It would be easy to think that this occurred only at the Cross. However, we see from the very beginning of his earthly life that he was destined to be a sacrificial lamb. In a similar way, the light that Christ shines in our minds and the fire of charity that sets our souls aflame should consume us, such that we can say with Saint Paul: “yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

Yesterday, the Church celebrated the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. It is no coincidence that this same feast day is called “Candlemas.” The first appearance of the Lord in the Temple is commemorated by the blessing of pillars of wax—wax that will later be used to remind us of Christ’s presence in other temples: the tabernacle of the Church and in the depths of our heart.”

Love & He is the Light!!!!
Matthew

God coming into the world


-by Mark A. McNeil, a former Oneness Pentecostal, was received into the Catholic Church in 1999.

”There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (Matt. 16:28)(1). It is not uncommon to hear atheists use this verse to charge that Jesus was obviously a failed prophet. One atheist, for instance, wrote, “Clearly, this did not happen, so either Jesus lied or he never made that promise.”

[Ed. I am always never surprised how skeptics take literally the parts of Scripture which suit their skeptical agenda, but never others.]

Perhaps more reflection on the meaning of Christ’s “coming” will be of both apologetic and spiritual value. What does it mean for God’s kingdom to come? Have Jesus’ predictions of His coming failed?

As a general rule of thumb, when someone sets up an either/or scenario, observers should be wary. The limitation of options offered in the atheist’s quote above, especially when considering apocalyptic expressions in the Old and New Testaments, is entirely arbitrary. Immediately following Matthew 16:28 is the story of the Transfiguration (17:1-8), an incredible vision in which Peter, James, and John did in fact see Christ in His divine form, and thus partake in a vision of God’s kingdom in this world.

Still, it is worthwhile to meditate on the question: How does God’s kingdom come? Technically, God doesn’t come or go anywhere (Ps. 139:7-10). God is the creator and sustainer of all time and space—nothing escapes His presence since, if it did, it would not exist. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Indeed, by the very fact that He gives being to the things that fill every place, He Himself fills every place.” (Summa Theologicae I.8.2).

So, if God doesn’t come or go anywhere, why does the Bible speak so frequently of His kingdom “coming”?

The Bible tells us about God and His actions in ways that we can understand. References to God’s eyes and ears, for instance, affirm that nothing is outside His awareness (e.g., Prov. 15:3, Ps. 116:2). But God doesn’t know things because light or sound waves enter physical organs. God “hears” and “sees” in a way that is appropriate to His infinite, spiritual mode of being. Since we can’t fully understand that, God speaks to us about Himself in terms that we can understand.

God’s coming means, first of all, that His presence becomes noticeably manifest. God may come to His people, for instance, through a prophet, a special event, miracle, or other means. The language of His coming, along with the dramatic and even shocking imagery that we often associate with John’s Apocalypse (Revelation, the final book of Scripture) is typical in the Hebrew prophets.

Jesus, continuing and deepening the Old Testament descriptions, spoke of the coming of God’s kingdom in various ways. Matthew sees Jesus’ birth in Micah’s prophetic words about a ruler Who will come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). John the Baptist anticipated Jesus’ ministry: “He Who is coming after me is mightier than I,” using striking apocalyptic language to speak of His purifying ministry: “the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 2:6, 3:11-12).

Shortly before His betrayal and passion, Jesus consoled his disciples with the words: “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you” (John 14:18). Although for “a little while, the world will not see” Jesus, his disciples will see him. These words point to Christ’s resurrection as a coming that will reveal his abiding presence with them. This coming also points to another major topic of Jesus’ final discourse with his disciples: the coming of the Holy Spirit (e.g., John 14:26). In more than one place, the Apostle Paul is drawn to speak of our transformation into God’s children through Christ as a response to God sending “the Spirit of His Son into our hearts” (Gal. 4:5-6, Rom. 8:1-11).

Before his Ascension, Jesus was asked if the time had arrived for the kingdom to be restored to Israel, a widespread Jewish hope in the first century. Jesus consistently directed attention away from speculation about the time when particular aspects of God’s plan would unfold. “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons which the Father has fixed with his own authority” (Acts 1:7). Instead, He directed attention to the imminent coming of the Holy Spirit that would lead to the Gospel’s advance throughout the world (Acts 1:8).

Perhaps all of this is not dramatic enough for our critics. What would a dramatic “coming” of God’s kingdom look like, anyway? It may seem foolish to those who are looking for flashing lights and great heavenly fireworks, but God seems to prefer to show the greatest demonstrations of His power within the realm of the human spirit. A fragile baby in a manger, riding a donkey into Jerusalem, suffering on a cross, and choosing uneducated fishermen are, from a certain point of view, anti-climactic. Yet, in another very important sense, they touch a deep nerve in our hearts. They reveal the striking truth that the God of the universe cares about us to the point that little things become displays of divine power and glory. A baby in a manger causes the heavenly host to burst into praise. Don’t these humble manifestations of divine power resemble Jesus’ choice of images when He speaks of God’s kingdom (e.g., mustard seed, measures of meal in dough, a lost sheep)?

So, what are we to make of the charge that Jesus’ promise “failed”—that His kingdom did not arrive on schedule, before that first generation of witnesses had passed? It is unpersuasive since it fails to see Jesus’ words both in their immediate context as well as the larger context of the biblical teachings regarding the manifold ways in which God’s kingdom comes to us now and in the future. We certainly anticipate the future Second Advent of Christ in all His glory but, like many in the first century, skeptics continue to miss the message of the Transfiguration: the kingdom of God is first and foremost embodied in Jesus. “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed…behold the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21).”

Love, and trembling in holy fear,
Matthew

(1) NABRE (New American Bible Revised Edition) footnote: Mt 16:28, “coming in His kingdom”: since the kingdom of the Son of Man has been described as “the world” and Jesus’ sovereignty precedes His final coming in glory (Mt 13:38, 41), the coming in this verse is not the parousia as in the preceding but the manifestation of Jesus’ rule after His resurrection(/the establishment of Church/Pentecost, in this sense of coming); see notes on Mt 13:38, 41.

Dec 25 – Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming!!

Lo! How a Rose e’er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
As those of old have sung.

It came a flower bright
Amid the cold of winter
When half-spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it,
The Rose I have in mind;
And so then we behold it,
The Virgin Mother kind.

To show God’s love aright
She bore to us a Savior
When half-spent was the night.


-by Br Damian Day, OP

“All was quiet and still with that quiet stillness that slows one’s step almost without him noticing. Beneath the dark boughs of the forest, the crisp flakes of the newly fallen snow caught and crystalized the silver moonlight. Brother Laurentius, wandering through this melancholic solemnity, observed amid the encircling white and diamond a deep ruby warmth. Stooping, the Cathusian(1)[Brother Laurentius (apocryphal); Carthusian monk Conradus, 1580s, Trier, manuscript anthology] lifted the blooming rose to a silver shaft of light. How strange to find such a flower nestled amid the Christmas snowfall. Still contemplating the blossom, the monk trudged back to the convent. Finding a crystal vase, he placed the rose beneath the gentle candlelight of Mary’s altar.

Brother Laurentius’s(1) midnight discovery, according to tradition, inspired the meditative Advent and Christmastide hymn, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” (“Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”).

From the beginning, “Lo, How a Rose” was a sort of gentle call to a Marian contemplation. The Church had long seen the Blessed Virgin prefigured in the words of the Song of Songs: “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys” (Song 2:1). The first version, which appeared in a German hymnal in 1599, sang of Mary as the rose that “has brought forth a floweret,” Christ. The verse captures the mystique of Mary’s role in the Incarnation of the Son of God. The perfect flower of her holiness provided the fitting stem upon which to form the humanity of the perfect man. Like Br. Laurentius gazing on the color of the rose amid the darkness of night, the listener contemplates the sinless beauty of the Virgin Mother of God amid the pallor of fallen world.

The current version of the hymn, with the powerful harmonies composed by Michael Praetorius in 1609, focuses more on that floweret, Christ:

This Flow’r, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor
The darkness everywhere.

We now see Christ as the rose fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isa 11:1). The grace and truth of the Christ child, like the sweet fragrance of a rose, permeates the rotten decay of our fallen world and makes all things fresh. The gentle light of the newborn king’s face, like the red rose in the field of white, shines out a glorious splendor that will blaze forth on the Mountain of the Transfiguration, obliterate the darkness of the grave in the light of the Resurrection, and flow to every corner of the earth through the faces of his friends who have seen this light.

In this focus on Christ the rose, the hymn retains its Marian aspect. Now, we join the Virgin Mother in her undiluted contemplation of her Son. The goal of the hymn, the purpose, is to join our eyes to those of Mary gazing upon this “flow’ret bright”: “With Mary we behold it.”

Mary is the contemplative par excellence. In her maternal care, we hear several times how she pondered in her heart the mystery of her divine Son (cf. Lk 1:29; 2:18, 51). When we pray the Rosary, we join in Mary’s contemplation, gazing with her into the inexhaustible mystery of her Son.

“Lo, How a Rose” invites us to a similar contemplation. We wonder at “How Christ, the Lord of Glory, / Was born on earth this night.” With Mary we ponder the baby in the crib, knowing that he is “True man, yet very God” and that “From sin and death He saves us.”

Praetorius’s musical arrangement aids this contemplation. The lyrics move slowly and gently through the harmonies, beckoning to us to slow down, to listen, to behold. The chords rise and fall, grow and subside with all the intensity and subtlety of contemplation, one moment powerful, the next moment gentle, yet always moving with a heavenly steadiness.

In this Christmas contemplation, we see ever more clearly what Mary saw and what her motherhood shows:

To show God’s love aright,
She bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.

Christ the flower came breathing forth the fragrance of divine love. He sprung from Mary’s “tender stem” to reveal the love of God, to manifest in visible form the heights and depths of God’s love. “To show God’s love aright,” God’s only Son became the Son of Man, born our brother through Mary, that we might be born his brothers through grace, becoming sons of God.

With Mary, then, we behold afresh the flowering of grace and new life in the Christ Child.

Love & the budding joy only He can give,
Matthew

(1) O’Sullivan, J. (2008). There Is a Rose Come Forth. The Furrow, 59(4), 242-245. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/27665728

Dec 28 – Is the massacre of the Holy Innocents historical? Mt 2:16-18


-Matteo di Giovanni, a tempera on panel painting by Matteo di Giovanni, produced between 1450 and 1500 possibly in 1468, 1478, or 1488) probably in Siena. It was commissioned by Alfonso II of Naples, then living in Siena as part of the campaign against the Medici. It was probably produced to commemorate the inhabitants of Otranto killed by the Ottomans in 1480 whose relics were moved into the church of Santa Caterina at Formiello at Alfonso’s request – the same church also originally housed the painting. It is now in the National Museum of Capodimonte.  Please click on the image for greater detail.

“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.””
-Mt 2:16-18

Jewish historian Josephus mentions in his Antiquities of the Jews (c. AD 94), which records many of Herod’s misdeeds, including the murder of three of his own sons

The first non-Christian reference to the massacre is recorded four centuries later by Macrobius (c. 395–423), who writes in his Saturnalia:

“When he [Emperor Augustus] heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old whom Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered killed, his own son was also killed, he said: it is better to be Herod’s pig, than his son.”

Coventry Carol

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.
Thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay”?

Herod the king, in his raging,
Chargèd he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child, for thee
And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay.”

The commemoration of the massacre of the Holy Innocents, traditionally regarded as the first Christian martyrs, if unknowingly so, first appears as a feast of the Western church in the Leonine Sacramentary, dating from about 485 AD. The earliest commemorations were connected with the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January: Prudentius mentions the Innocents in his hymn on the Epiphany.  Pope St Leo the Great in his homilies on the Epiphany speaks of the Innocents. Fulgentius of Ruspe (6th century AD) gives a homily De Epiphania, deque Innocentum nece et muneribus magorum (“On Epiphany, and on the murder of the Innocents and the gifts of the Magi”).


-by Trent Horn

“Matthew 2:12 tells us that the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod the Great after visiting Jesus and his family, and so they departed for their country by another way. Herod, upon realizing their failure to report to him, subsequently ordered all the male children in Bethlehem under the age of two to be executed (Matt. 2:16). Atheist C.J. Werleman wrote of this story:

[T]here is no record of King Herod or any Roman ruler ever giving such an infanticidal statute. In fact, the ancient historian Josephus, who extensively recorded Herod’s crimes, does not mention this baby murdering, which would undoubtedly have been Herod’s greatest crime by far.

Now, it is true that Matthew did not intend to write a literal history of Jesus’ birth. The evangelist uses various narrative devices in order to underscore the reality of Jesus being the “new Moses.” On that view, one of those devices could be the creation of a story that parallels the slaughter of the Hebrew infants from which Moses was spared (Exod. 1:22).

But this approach to Scripture often evinces a “hermeneutic of suspicion” and begins with an assumption that denies not just the miraculous but also the providential. From this perspective, real historical events can’t “rhyme” with one another in order to demonstrate God’s sovereignty over time and space. Any such “marvelous coincidences” have to be explained as the inventions of a rather mundane author who is just riffing on older source material.

The evidence does not, however, point to the Gospels being such purely allegorical accounts. Matthew’s narrative diverges significantly from Moses’ birth story. For example, Jesus is raised by his mother instead of in Herod’s court and Moses flees as an adult from Egypt whereas Jesus flees as a child to Egypt. In his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI wrote,

What Matthew and Luke set out to do each in his own way, was not to tell “stories” but to write history, real history that had actually happened, admittedly interpreted and understood in the context of the word of God. Hence the aim was not to produce an exhaustive account, but a record of what seemed important for the nascent faith community in the light of the word. The infancy narratives are interpreted history, condensed and written down in accordance with the interpretation.

But what about the argument from silence that atheists like Werleman make? If this massacre really did happen, then why didn’t any other author—biblical or non-biblical—record it?

First, Mark and John do not discuss any of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, so we wouldn’t expect them to talk about the slaughter of the innocents. Second, Luke and Matthew’s accounts are complementary, not redundant, and so it isn’t surprising that there are details unique to each account be it Matthew’s description of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents or Luke’s description of Caesar Augustus’ enrollment of the population in what later authors describe as a “census” (Luke 2:1).

Such an act of cruelty perfectly corresponds with Herod’s paranoid and merciless character, which bolsters the argument for its historicity. Josephus records that Herod was quick to execute anyone he perceived to threaten his rule, including his wife and children (Antiquities 15.7.5–6 and 16.11.7). Two Jewish scholars have made the case that Herod suffered from “Paranoid Personality Disorder,” and Caesar Augustus even said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son.

In addition, first-century Bethlehem was a small village that would have included, at most, a dozen males under the age of two. Josephus, if he even knew about the massacre, probably did not think an isolated event like the killings at Bethlehem needed to be recorded, especially since infanticide in the Roman Empire was not a moral abomination as it is in our modern Western world.

Herod’s massacre would also not have been the first historical event Josephus failed to record.

We know from Suetonius and from the book of Acts that the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in A.D. 49, but neither Josephus nor the second century Roman historian Tacitus record this event (Acts 18). Josephus also failed to record Pontius Pilate’s decision to install blasphemous golden shields in Jerusalem, which drove the Jews to petition the emperor for their removal. The Alexandrian philosopher Philo was the only person to record this event.

Sometimes historians choose not to record an event, and their reasons cannot always be determined. In the nineteenth century Pope Leo XIII noted the double standard in critics for whom “a profane book or ancient document is accepted without hesitation, whilst the Scripture, if they only find in it a suspicion of error, is set down with the slightest possible discussion as quite untrustworthy” (Providentissimus Deus, 20).

We should call out this double standard when critics demand that every event recorded in Scripture, including the massacre of the Holy Innocents, be corroborated in other non-biblical accounts before they can be considered to be historical.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Dec 25 – silence


-Isenheim altar piece, 2nd view, Mathias Grünewald, 1512-1516, Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, Alsace, in France, painted for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim near Colmar, which specialized in hospital work. The Antonine monks of the monastery were noted for their care of plague sufferers as well as their treatment of skin diseases, such as ergotism, aka St Anthony’s Fire.  Ergotism sufferers endure spasms especially of the hands, legs, and feet.  They also endure a dry gangrene.  It is the result of fungus on cereal grains, which can still occur today; and, more recently, through ergoline-based drugs. The image of the crucified Christ is pitted with plague-type sores, showing patients that Jesus understood and shared their afflictions. The veracity of the work’s depictions of medical conditions was unusual in the history of European art.  Please click on the image for greater detail.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,

and with fear and trembling stand;

ponder nothing earthly-minded,

for with blessing in His hand,

Christ our God to earth descendeth,

our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,

as of old on earth He stood,

Lord of lords, in human vesture,

in the body and the blood;

He will give to all the faithful

His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven

Spreads its vanguard on the way,

As the Light of light descendeth

From the realms of endless day,

Comes the powers of hell to vanquish

As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six-winged seraph,

cherubim, with sleepless eye,

veil their faces to the presence,

as with ceaseless voice they cry:

Alleluia, Alleluia,

Alleluia, Lord Most High!


-by Br Elijah Dubek, OP

“”Christ our God to earth descendeth.” The Incarnation establishes a new presence of God among us. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of the Father, comes to us as a little babe, wherein the “the fullness of God dwells bodily” (Col 2:9). On the one hand, God is already present everywhere, isn’t He? And on the other, the seraphim and cherubim do not “veil their faces to the presence” just everywhere. So what exactly is this new presence among us that evokes our “fear and trembling”?

Saint Thomas Aquinas describes God’s presence among creatures in a variety of ways (ST I, q. 8, a. 3). First, He is omnipresent by His essence, presence, and power. God’s creative act, His knowledge of creatures, and His governance of the world touch all things, and because of this connection, God is present there. Without God’s presence in these ways, creatures would cease to exist. From the highest of the blessed in heaven to the lowest and most mundane dust of the earth, things exist only because God is willing to be close to us. Beyond this universal presence, God can make Himself present in special ways as well. To intellectual creatures, God can give Himself as an object of our knowing and loving. That is to say, by pouring faith and charity into our hearts, God makes Himself present in us, dwelling in us as in a temple.  1 Cor 6:19.

There is another kind of presence of God, to which the angels veil their faces in homage and adoration. This presence is not merely by causation, or even the sublime gift of divine indwelling. The personal being of the Son unites to Himself a human nature, so that the man Jesus does not just possess grace to an eminent degree; rather, Jesus is truly God. The King of kings and Lord of lords Himself comes to us, taking on a human nature. The infant in the manger is not merely a sign of God’s presence. Jesus is God, the Incarnate Word.”

Love,
Matthew

Dec 26 – Lá Fhéile Stiofáin/Lá an Dreoilín


-Wrenboys on Wren Day in Dingle, Ireland, please click on the image for greater detail

The wren, oh the wren; he’s the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day he got caught in the furze,
So it’s up with the kettle and it’s down with the pan,
Won’t you give us a penny for to bury the wren?

Well it’s Christmas time; that’s why we’re here,
Please be good enough to give us an ear,
For we’ll sing and we’ll dance if youse give us a chance,
And we won’t be comin’ back for another whole year!

We’ll play Kerry polkas; they’re real hot stuff,
We’ll play the Mason’s Apron and the Pinch of Snuff,
Jon Maroney’s jig and the Donegal reel,
Music made to put a spring in your heel!

If there’s a drink in the house, would it make itself known,
Before I sing a song called “The Banks of the Lowne”,
A drink with lubri-mication in it,
For me poor dry throat and I’ll sing like a linnet!

Oh please give us something for the little bird’s wake,
A big lump of pudding or some Christmas cake,
A fist full o’ goose and a hot cup o’ tay (Tea),
And then we’ll all be goin’ on our way!

The wren, oh the wren; he’s the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day he got caught in the furze,
So it’s up with the kettle and it’s down with the pan,
Won’t you give us a penny for to bury the wren?

December 26 is one of nine official public holidays in Ireland, in English, Wren Day. This name alludes to several legends, including those found in Irish mythology, linking episodes in the life of Jesus to the wren. People dress up in old clothes, wear straw hats and travel from door to door with fake wrens (previously real wrens were killed) and they dance, sing and play music.

Depending on which region of the country, they are called “wrenboys” and mummers. A Mummer’s Festival is held at this time every year in the village of New Inn, County Galway, and Dingle in County Kerry. Mumming is also a big tradition in County Fermanagh in Ulster. Saint Stephen’s Day is a popular day for visiting family members and going to the theatre to see a pantomime. In most of Ulster in the north of Ireland, the day is usually known as Boxing Day, especially in Northern Ireland and County Donegal.

Irish further appended St Stephen’s Day with the hunting of wren. At some point during the Feast of St. Stephen, the children from each family would find a wren and chase it until it was captured or died from exhaustion. After “going on the wren,” the children would tie the dead bird to the end of a pole or put it in a cage and parade around town singing.

Each group would stop at homes around the neighborhood, show their bird and collect some money. At the end of the day, the money the town’s children gathered was pooled and used to host a huge city-wide dance.

There are two tales why the wren became the unfortunate victim of the day. In one version, St. Stephen had all but eluded his capture when a singing wren betrayed his hiding place. The other explanation is that during the Viking raids on the Emerald Island in the eighth century, wrens betrayed the Irish soldiers’ location and foiled a potential ambush.

——————————————–


-Cardinal Miloslav Vlk with the skull of Saint Wenceslaus during a procession on September 28, 2006, please click on the image for greater detail

“Good King Wenceslas” is a Christmas carol that tells a story of a Bohemian king going on a journey and braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26, the Second Day of Christmas). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king’s footprints which are warmed by the saint’s holiness, step for step, through the deep snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia or Svatý Václav in Czech (907–935). The name Wenceslas is a Latinised version of the old Czech language “Venceslav”.

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.

“Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.


-by Br Paul Marich, OP

“Today is known as Boxing Day in England, where the wealthy would traditionally give gifts to their servants and to the less fortunate. Interestingly enough, there is a link between this secular commemoration, today’s liturgical feast of Saint Stephen, and the message of the mid-nineteenth century English carol, Good King Wenceslaus. While both St. Stephen and Wenceslaus wore the martyr’s crown, they were also known for their service to the poor, which they undertook for the sake of Christ. Their mutual witness shows us how the mystery of Christmas can transform us into loving disciples of the newborn Savior.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we find Stephen, a young man “full of grace and power” who “did great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). As one of the first deacons, he was committed to serving the poor and widows, so that the Apostles could freely fulfill their preaching mission. He defended the Faith against those who were trying to silence the followers of Christ, eventually succumbing to death by stoning. We celebrate him as the first martyr on the day after Christmas, because he reminds us of the ultimate mission of the newborn savior, who came to earth in order to die for our sins.

With St. Stephen as his example, it was quite fitting that “Good King Wenceslaus looked out on the feast of Stephen.” Who was this good “King Wenceslaus”? Wenceslaus I—more precisely, the Duke of Bohemia—was born around 907. His path to holiness was inspired by his grandmother, Saint Ludmila, who was one of the first to be baptized in Bohemia. He succeeded his father as duke when he was only a teenager, and was known for his devotion and virtue. Like Stephen, Wenceslaus assisted the poor with alms as a young man. In 935, he was killed by his brother, who resented Wenceslaus’ allegiance to both the Church and the German king. Saint Wenceslaus has been venerated as a martyr ever since his death.

It is the charity of St. Wenceslaus that is the major theme of the carol that bears his name, but we must carefully read each verse in order to unlock this message. We find the first clue at the end of verse 1: “When a poor man came in sight gath’ring winter fuel.” In verse 3, Wenceslaus and his page feed this poor man and provide him with firewood for the wintry night. By verse 4, the page is spent, unable to go further due to the cold. Wenceslaus commands him to follow in his steps, as “Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.” The presence of the saint radiates the love of Christ in the midst of the winter’s cold. It was Christ Whom Wenceslaus proclaimed, for His coming into the world scatters the darkness and warms the hardened hearts of sinners. All of us, regardless of status, must serve Christ in the poor and helpless, for in doing so, we proclaim the good news of salvation with the hope of eternal life. The final words of the carol teach such a lesson:

“Therefore, Christian men, be sure,

wealth or rank possessing,

Ye who now will bless the poor,

Shall yourselves find blessing.”

Saint Wenceslaus lived this lesson eminently, humbling himself from his throne to help the poor and downtrodden.

Christmastime can prompt us to help those who are needy, yet such sentiments for good deeds should not be a mere formality or come by way of social obligation. Rather, they must be rooted in a love for the Infant lying in the manger. Christ’s lowly birth shows us our own poverty and weakness, as He descended among us to raise us out of the poverty of sin. Saints Stephen and Wenceslaus are venerated as martyrs, yet their witness includes a love for Christ in the poor, which preceded their ultimate sacrifice for Him. Their example inspires us to bring the love of the newborn Christ to all those we encounter, both at Christmas and throughout the whole year.”

Love,
Matthew

Dec 25 – Lamentation of the Destruction of Jerusalem


-Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, Rembrandt, 1630, Oil on panel, 58 cm × 46 cm (23 in × 18 in) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands, please click on the image for greater detail.


-by Br John Bernard Church, OP, English Province

“At the centre of Rembrandt’s moving portrait we have the wizened face of the prophet Jeremiah. His look is one of despair, mourning the destruction of the city behind him. Sitting alone, the lacklustre resignation of his posture seems ill-fitting for one dressed in such resplendent robes, and the array of silverware at his side evidently provides little comfort. Our immediate impression is of a man completely at a loss, whose material comforts and earthly grandeur seem out of place in the midst of such tragedy.

The blurry background of the burning Temple in Jerusalem is almost dreamlike, set against the sharp detail of the prophet’s haggard expression. Perhaps even he, who has spent his life prophesying this moment, can hardly believe it has happened. He said this time would come, that the Babylonians would destroy the Temple: “Take warning, O Jerusalem”. Yet he was met with rejection: “See, their ears are closed, they cannot listen” (Jer 6:8-10). This is a depiction of a prophet lamenting: he shows no satisfaction in his vindication, rather the grieving figure ponders what more he could have done.

“Hear, O earth; I am going to bring disaster on this people, the fruit of their schemes, because they have not given heed to my words” (Jer 6:19).

But I don’t think Rembrandt really does depict a prophet in despair. One mourning, lamenting, grieving certainly, but not despair. To despair is to give up, to lack any hope, and this prophet does not lack hope.

Jeremiah features rarely in the Advent liturgies, where pride of place among the prophets is given to Isaiah. His doleful lamentations are more fittingly read in Lent: describing himself as the “gentle lamb led to the slaughter” (Jer 11:19), his words point us forward to the Passion.

However, this week we are given Jeremiah’s sole messianic prophecy, a rare glimmer of light amidst his warnings of judgment and destruction: at some future, unspecified time, the Lord will raise up a righteous branch for David, “who shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer 23:5).

This is the hope that carries the prophet. He need not despair, for even as the Temple in Jerusalem burns, he knows a time of justice and peace is coming: the Temple that will be raised up on the third day.

In the eyes of Rembrandt, this interior hope of the prophet takes on a physical form. In the middle of the painting, dimly lit and easily missed next to the glimmer of jewels, is a volume of the Torah. A later editor has helpfully scrawled ‘Bibel’ on it in cased we missed the point. Jeremiah leans heavily on the book, bent beneath his weight: while the earthly wealth may grab our attention, the Lord’s covenant with His people contained in the Torah is what holds this painting together. It is the hope that sustains the prophet.

Advent for us too is about a hope that lives within us taking on a physical form. The form of a baby no less, as we wait patiently for our Incarnate Lord.

Jeremiah’s name in Hebrew means ‘The Lord will restore’: while the nearby destruction may give him the appearance of despair, his hope in the Lord remains steadfast. So too may we remain steadfast in hope for the coming of our Saviour, looking to Jeremiah just as the Letter of St James reminds us: “Brethren, take as an example of suffering and patience the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord” (James 5:10).”

Love & the joy only He can give,
Matthew

Dec 25 – Christ Thrice


-Fra Filippo Lippi, Mystical Nativity or The Adoration in the Forest, c. 1459. Oil on a poplar panel, and the painted surface measures 127 x 116 cm, with the panel being 129.5 x 118.5 cm, originally an altarpiece for the Magi Chapel in the new Palazzo Medici in Florence, it is now in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, with a copy by another artist now hanging in the chapel. Please click on the image for greater detail.


-by Br Daniel Benedict Rowlands, OP, English Province

“All three comings of Christ described by St Bernard seem to be represented in this painting, but especially the intermediate coming of Christ to the individual soul: in the shadowy forest of the human heart, shrouded in the gloom of sin, it remains within our capability to clear a small glade into which Christ may come to dwell.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the scene before us is nothing more than a variation on a traditional nativity, with the two protagonists abstracted from their familiar setting, and placed instead in a rather forbidding forest. Indeed, the Adoration of the Christ Child motif, in which an intense focus is placed on the blessed Mother’s adoration of her son, began to appear following the mystic St Bridget of Sweden’s vision of the nativity in the 14th century. Nevertheless, I suggest that we need not wait until Christmas to enjoy this painting, for there is much that commends it as apt stimulus for Advent meditation.

The Office of Readings on the Thursday of the first week of Advent features the following passage in which St Bernard speaks of the threefold coming of Christ:

“In the first coming the Lord was seen on earth and lived among men… In His last coming all flesh shall see the salvation of our God, and they shall look on Him whom they have pierced. The other coming is hidden. In it, only the chosen see Him within themselves… Listen to Christ Himself, If a man loves Me he will keep My words, and My Father will love Him, and We will come to him… Where, then, are they to be kept? Without any doubt they are to be kept in the heart… Let it pierce deep into your inmost soul and penetrate your feelings and actions… If you keep the word of God in this way without a doubt you will be kept by It.”

I think this painting can naturally be read as depicting the intermediate coming described by St Bernard. In the shadowy, stony forest of the human heart, shrouded in the gloom of sin, it remains within our capability to clear a small glade into which Christ may come to dwell with us. Lippi’s depiction of the forest is probably based on the woods of Camaldoli, which makes St Romuald – the founder of the Camaldolese Order – the likely identity of the monk in the background. Cutting down trees for timber was the monks’ primary source of manual labour, so the fusion of prayer and work enjoined by the Rule of St Benedict seems to take on a special significance here: the lofty pines of pride are what stand most in need of felling. Fra Lippi is thoughtful enough to offer us an axe with which we too may take up this work: we seem to be invited to imitate the Israelites who undertook the humble task of sourcing the cedar for Solomon’s temple. As for overlaying the sanctuary with pure gold, we find that work already done – quite literally thanks to the artist – in the person of our Lady, the Domus Aurea (House of Gold) as she is called in the Litany (cf. 1 Kings 5-6).

Within this “interior forest” in which time and space are transcended, the first and final comings are also allusively juxtaposed. I have no qualms putting into the mouth of a youthful John the Baptist, who stands next to the newborn Christ child, the words of his later proclamation: “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mat. 3:10). In the same act by which we prepare ourselves to contemplate the great mystery of the incarnation and so bring Christ to birth within us, we concomitantly prepare ourselves to be judged by Him.

Looking at this Florentine Renaissance masterpiece with an eye to eschatology, I can’t help but call to mind the work of another of the city’s masters, namely Dante and the evocative opening tercet of the Inferno: “Midway along the journey of our life I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path”. Bewildered by ignorance and sin, the pilgrim does not, like Dante, negotiate a bestial trinity of vices (embodied by the leopard, lion, and wolf) with only the assistance of natural reason (represented by Virgil). Rather, having prepared the garden of the soul, Lippi’s contemplative has been graced with the condescension of the Logos Himself, and through Him, now experiences a foretaste of participation in the Trinitarian life itself. Manifestations of the Trinity are certainly not a common theme in Advent art, whether it be of incarnational or eschatological emphasis. St Bernard’s intermediate coming of Christ to the soul, however, does provide a fitting context in which the the veil of human nature assumed by the second person of the Trinity may indeed take on a particularly striking transparency. Perhaps, if I am granted some interpretative licence, Lippi is alluding to this with the exquisitely diaphanous drapery that clothes the lower half of the Divine Infant.

I will end with a prayer of praise contained in the Advent Lyrics – a collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry that I mention in an upcoming post – which also takes up this theme of recognising the mystery of the incarnation as the common work of the whole Godhead:

“O beautiful, plenteous in honours,

high and holy, heavenly Trinity

blessed far abroad across the spacious plains,

Whom, by right, speech-bearers,

wretched earth-dwellers, should supremely praise

with all their power, now God, true to His pledge,

has revealed a Saviour to us, that we may know Him.”

Love & the joy only He can bring,
Matthew

Dec 25 – Desire & fear, Nunc dimittis


-Simeon and Jesus, by Andrey Shishkin, 2012, 70 x 55cm

“Hope deferred maketh the heart sick: but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life.” — Proverbs 13:12


-by Br Bede Mullins, OP, English Province

“Desire and fear drive and drag us through life. By them, the possibility of the future makes itself felt even in the present – the possibility even of futures that will not come to be, perhaps in spite of our best efforts and strivings. So much of life is ineffective bustle, so much is disappointed waiting. And the bustle and the waiting is not only our own, individual exertion; nations, religious adherents, political parties and all manner of corporate bodies wait and bustle collectively.

In Advent, the Church realises anew her own desire, for her Lord and Bridegroom to come. “Behold, I am coming soon!” The promise has been uttered from the earliest years, whispered in the ears of prophets and proclaimed aloud by Apostles. Every empty promise from the first – “Ye shall be as gods” – has been a cheap imitation of this one true promise given first to Israel, renewed to the Church, stored in the hearts of all mankind. It is the promise of God’s definitive appearing, the moment when He shall make His presence fully felt throughout His creation; and creation in its thrill, shall shine out like its Creator. “Creation in eager expectation waits to receive the revelation of the sons of God. For creation was made subject to futility, not willingly but because of Him who subjected it in a hope, that creation itself would be set free from bondage to corruption, into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” -Rm 8:19-21.

Now, we are subject to futility – the bustle and the nothing that it achieves. What this season commands us, is to wait. For the Lord is coming, but that is His business. Times and dates are not within our ken. Times and dates in some sense are hardly to the point, because when He comes it will be in an instant, the blinking of an eye.  And even when He came the first time, after a nine month gestation and growing up through the years which we all know, He came silently as in the midst of the night. A prophet had not arisen in Israel, and the nation waited.  Did they see when He came?  We too must watch, to make sure we shall see when He comes.

“Watch, be attentive”: readiness for the Parousia is honed in contemplation. With this in mind, this Advent we would like to look for the Lord by looking at that art which down the years has expressed the longing, for His coming in the flesh and His coming in glory. We shall look at depictions of those who have waited, at depictions of the Lord as He has already come and as, so far as we can imagine, He is to come. Let us catch even a glimpse of Him, and conceive in our hearts the joy of Simeon: “My eyes have seen Your salvation!””

Love & the joy only He can give,
Matthew