Category Archives: Advent

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

Dec 25 – “Timete Deum et date illi honorem quia venit hora iudicii eius”, “Fear God, for the hour of His judgment is coming.” (cf. Apoc. 14.7)


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June 26, 2019, Barneby’s Auction House, London, UK

On 22 June, a painting by Renaissance painter Nicolas Cordonnier, which was discovered in a French apartment, sold for £84,200 – almost ten times its estimate.

The Preaching of St. Vincent, an oil on board painted between 1515-20, was found after it had been collecting dust in an apartment in downtown Pau, a city in southwestern France, for many years. Presented on 22 June at auction house Carrère and Laborie, the work sold to a French collector for €94,000 (£84,200) including fees, against an estimate of €10,000- 15,000 (£9,000-15,200).

More than a success for the auction house, this painting is also a great discovery for art historians. As explained by Old Master’s expert Patrick Dubois at the Gazette Drouot, this work was known only from a photocopy. The art historian and curator of the Louvre from 1929 to 1961, Charles Sterling, had made a photocopy of the work to insert it in the ‘Burgundy-Champagne’ section of the museum’s archives, while another reproduction appeared more recently in the research of specialists Frédéric Elsig and Dominique Thiébaut. The location of the original work remained unknown, until today.

The painting’s artist, Nicolas Cordonnier, known as the ‘Master of the Legend of the Santa Casa’, in reference to his eponymous triptych of 1525-30, now preserved in the museum of Vauluisant in Troyes, was a prominent painter in the Champagne region of France during his time. Coming from a family of artists, his style was influenced by the work of Provencal painter Josse Lieferinxe, whom he discovered in Marseille during a visit to his brother Jean.

“Its owners did not suspect that they held one of the few works of the most important painter from Troyes of the early 16th century” reported the Gazette Drouot. This major period in the history of French painting saw artists embark on the path of the Renaissance.

The work depicts Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican preacher who travelled to France, Italy and Spain to warn the population against the end of the world. His audience was said to be captivated, terrified and seduced by his words, although he spoke only in Spanish and Latin. In Cordonnier’s painting, St. Vincent is preaching from a pulpit to a mixed reaction from the audience. In fact, several men wearing turbans, visible to the left of the composition, show their disapproval.

The painting’s auctioneer Patrice Carrère, who orchestrated the sale, immediately noticed the work when he visited the apartment in Pau. He said of the work, “It is a painting whose patina made me say that it was probably 15th century.”

This discovery will allow historians to deepen their research and knowledge about the Troyes-born artist, who is still somewhat unknown. The difference between the estimate and the final auction price of the work can be explained not only by the rarity of this kind of painting, but also because, according to Carrère, “it is the first time that this artist’s work went to a public auction.”


-by Br Vincent Antony Löning, OP, English Province

“My Dominican patron, S. Vincent Ferrer, especially liked preaching about the end of the world. In the picture above, he is doing precisely that. With his finger he points to the sky: just as Christ has ascended into heaven, so He will also come down from heaven! We even see a little Christ, floating on some clouds, as if ready to come back. And out of his mouth issues S. Vincent’s stark warning: “Fear God, for the hour of his judgment is coming.” (cf. Apoc. 14.7). This is almost a mediaeval comic-strip! This painting by Nicolas Cordonnier dates to the early 16th century, and was rediscovered only as recently as this summer in Pau, in southern France. As apocalyptic prophecies might do, Vincent Ferrer is clearly getting a pretty mixed reaction from his audience… His enthusiasm for this kind of preaching even earned him the nickname ‘the Angel of the Apocalypse’.

Although we might often be tempted to leave to one side such doom-and-gloom warnings, the crux of this message is ever-relevant. Christ wants to save us, and has already come once to do that, and yet He will still come again to usher in His  reign of glory—and our own, if we will follow Him. Before then, it is never too late for us to repent: we all have to recognise that we only ever follow Him imperfectly at best, and cannot even begin doing that without God’s grace. If we do, the promise of judgment becomes a promise of glory. And then, perhaps we can await the last days a little more joyfully and eagerly!”

Love & joy, Come Lord Jesus!  Maranatha!  Come!
Matthew

Dec 25 – Light of the World


-The Light of the World (1851–1853) is an allegorical painting by the English Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt (1827–1910) representing the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door, illustrating Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me”. According to Hunt: “I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be by Divine command, and not simply as a good Subject.” The door in the painting has no handle, and can therefore be opened only from the inside, representing “the obstinately shut mind”. Hunt, 50 years after painting it, felt he had to explain the symbolism. Please click on the image for greater detail.


-by Bede Mullins, OP, English Province

“We have heard it said, “Knock, and the door shall be opened unto you”; our prayer is a knocking at the Lord’s door, the thud of our needs and desires (our need and desire, finally, for Him) crying out to Him. But now He says to us, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me.” He awaits our response; He is left in the cold and dark, Who alone brings us light and warmth. This is the mystery that St John expresses when he says that love means, not the love with which we love God; it is really the love with which He loves us – God’s motion, not our own.

The shaggy, crowned and luminous figure – light and salvation – knocks at the world’s door; “but his own knew him not”. We have heard it said that God shall pass judgment on those who knock at his door too late: “I do not know you,” he shall say to them, and they shall be left in the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Only, now we see, it is not God who abandons them; we may be unfaithful, but he is not unfaithful. “I stand at the door and knock – and you have not answered to me. I was hungry and you gave me no food, thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” He came among his own, and his own received him not.

He knocks at the dead wooden door of an unyielding world. (Maybe Dickens was wrong; maybe there is something really dead about a doorknob, when it cannot, will not be turned.) And as He knocks, His eyes gaze out at us. The world’s door, our hearts. He who will come at the end of the ages, to open the doors that were closed and reveal the things that were hidden – He who comes to judge the world with fire: He comes now and every moment to each of us, to see if we will open even a chink to Him the doors to our hearts, wherein He wishes to enter and make His abode. Holman Hunt painted his Christ with an emphatic solidity: this is no mythic figure, no spiritual vapour, he wrote, but “the Christ that is alive for ever more…firmly and substantially there waiting for the stirring of the sleeping soul”.

St Antony went out to the desert, to find Christ in the lairs of demons. Christ comes to our hearts, lairs of vice and demons and perverse desires – those weeds massing up in front of the door as if to block His way – to drive them out and take up His abode there. St Antony purifying his heart in the desert; Christ knocking at the hearts of each of us individually, Who yet is High Priest and King of the world, the Slayer of cosmic demons as well as personal vice. I want to say that we inhabit our interiority or our spirituality externally. Or that Christ inhabits our temporality timelessly.

Either way, the season stretching from Advent to Epiphany is a season of contradictions. We muddles ourselves up with Christ’s several comings: we take on the mourning cast of violet, awaiting a Saviour we know has already come to save us, awaiting judgment from One Who has been our Redeemer. And following Advent we shall have the Christmas paradox: the Almighty and Infinite scaled into the crib. Epiphany caps it all. John the Baptist must baptise the One Who will give Baptism its saving power, miracles begin at Cana, and the wise men have their worldly wisdom upturned.

This Advent confusion is in fact the confusion that the world necessarily inhabits, in the twilight between Christ’s definitive paschal victory, and His manifestation at the world’s end. “The night is far gone, the day is at hand,” says St Paul – very nearly, but not yet here, and we are perplexed. T. S. Eliot gives these words to one of the wise men:

“Birth or death? There was a Birth,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.””

Love & Light, He comes,
Matthew

Dec 25 – “Wimmelbilder” & Flight into Egypt


-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).”

Love & safety,
Matthew

Dec 25 – Joseph, Dreams, & Christmas

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!

Love,
Matthew

Rorate Caeli


-by Br Damian Day, OP

“Advent is the season of longing. The purple vestments, the substance of the readings, and the tenor of the liturgies all express our yearning for the coming of our King who will remove the desolation of sin and invigorate our souls with his life. The entrance chant for the fourth Sunday of Advent, Rorate Caeli, encapsulates the great desire of this season with the haunting beauty of its pleading.

The chant is basically a meditation on Isaiah 45:8,

Rain down, you heavens, from above,
And let the skies pour down righteousness;
Let the earth open, let them bring forth salvation,
And let righteousness spring up together.
I, the Lord, have created it.

a text that appears in various Advent liturgies, including today’s morning prayer. These words form the moving refrain:

Roráte caéli désuper,
et núbes plúant jústum.

Heavens, drop dew from above,
and let the clouds rain forth justice.

The Church raises a plea to heaven that God might come down and refresh the desert dryness of our lives. We pine for the Lord “like a dry, weary land without water” (Ps 63:1). The structure of the chant itself reflects this movement.

With the first word of the Church’s pleading, the imperative Roráte, the notes move upward reaching the highest pitch on heavens (caéli). From heaven’s heights, the chant descends downward with the hoped for dewfall (désuper), rising slightly to the clouds (núbes) from which the notes rain forth with justice (plúant jústum).

Rorate Caeli is a prayer for the Incarnation. We pray for the Holy Spirit, symbolized by the clouds and the water of the dewfall, to descend upon the dry earth of our humanity in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. From her, watered by the rain of heavenly grace, the earth bursts forth in fruitfulness: “Let the earth open and salvation bud forth; let justice also spring up!” (Isa 45:8).

Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Man, is the justice (jústum) that we pray will both rain down from heaven and spring up from the earth. He is the answer to the plight that characterizes the verses of the Rorate. In the first two stanzas, the voice of the Church sings of the desolation of humanity. Then, from the depths, the prayer rises up:

Víde Dómine afflictiónem pópuli túi,
et mítte quem missúrus es:
emítte Agnum dominatórem térræ

Behold, O Lord, the affliction of thy people,
and send forth him whom thou wilt send;
send forth the Lamb, the ruler of the earth

The Lamb, “the just one, shall justify the many, their iniquity he shall bear” (Isa 53:11). He is the only answer to the desert of desolation that sin causes in our souls. He washes away the grime of sin and waters the desiccated soil of our hearts when he pours himself out upon our thirsty earth.

In the last stanza of the chant, we hear God’s tender and sure response to these pleas:

Consolámini, consolámini, pópule méus:
cito véniet sálus túa:
quare mæróre consúmeris,
quia innovávit te dólor?
Salvábo te, nóli timére,
égo enim sum Dóminus Déus túus,
Sánctus Israël, Redémptor túus.

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people;
your salvation shall suddenly come:
why wilt thou waste away in sadness?
why hath sorrow seized thee?
Fear not, for I will save thee:
For I am the Lord thy God,
the Holy One of Israel, thy Redeemer.

May we join the pleading of our hearts to the cry of the Church, straining forward to the day when the Just One will pour himself forth and quench our every thirst.”

Love,
Matthew

Dec 14 – “Thy dear Love can slay”


-by Br Philip Nolan, OP

“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 David before 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.'”

Love, and the victory of Love,
Matthew

Dec 7 – Veni Redemptor Gentium – St Ambrose of Milan, (337-397 AD), Father & Doctor of the Church

Veni, Redemptor gentium;
Ostende partum virginis;
Miretur omne saeculum.
Talis decet partus Deo.

Non ex virili semine,
Sed mystico spiramine
Verbum Dei tactum est caro,
Fructusque ventris floruit.

Alvus tumescit virginis.
Claustrum pudoris permanet;
Vexilla virtutum micant,
Versatur in templo Deus.

Procedit e thalamo suo,
Pudoris aulo regia,
Geminae gigans substantiae
Alacris ut currat viam.

Egressus eius a Patre,
Regressus eius ad Patrem ;
Excursus usque ad inferos
Recursus ad sedem Dei.

Aequalis aeterno Patri,
Carnis tropaeo accingere,
Infirma nostri corporis
Virtute firmans perpeti.

Praesepe iam fulget tuum,
Lumenque nox spirat novum,
Quad nulla nox interpolet
Fideque iugi luceat.

Gloria tibi, Domine,
Qui natus es de virgine,
Cum Patre et saneto Spiritu,
In sempiterna saecula.

Come, thou Redeemer of the earth,
Come manifest thy virgin birth:
All lands admire, all times applaud:
Such is the birth that fits our God.

Forth from his chamber goeth he,
That royal home of purity,
A giant in twofold substance one,
Rejoicing now his course to run.

The Virgin’s womb that glory gained,
Its virgin honor is still unstained.
The banners there of virtue glow;
God in his temple dwells below.

From God the Father he proceeds,
To God the Father back he speeds;
Runs out his course to death and hell,
Returns on God’s high throne to dwell.

O Equal to thy Father, thou!
Gird on thy fleshly mantle now;
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate.

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
And darkness breathe a newer light,
Where endless faith shall shine serene,
And twilight never intervene.

All laud, eternal Son, to Thee
Whose advent sets Thy people free,
Whom with the Father we adore,
And Holy Ghost, for evermore.


-by Br Raymond LaGrange, OP

Non ex virili semine,

sed mystico spiramine

Verbum Dei factum est caro

fructusque ventris floruit.

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.”

Love & Advent,
Matthew