Category Archives: Christmastide

Jun 5 – St Boniface & the Christmas tree


-St Boniface icon in the care of St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.  Please click on the image for greater detail.


-by Steve Weidenkopf

“Today we celebrate the feast of St. Boniface (680–754), known in Church history as the Apostle to the Germans. Boniface is regarded as “probably the greatest missionary since St. Paul” for his extensive travels and successful evangelization efforts in modern-day Germany.[1] While he is well known as a great bishop and evangelizer, Catholic legend, based on actual historical events, also holds that Boniface is the founder of the use of a Christmas tree to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child.

The story of the Christmas tree begins in England, where the very young Winfrid decided to enter a Benedictine monastery over the objections of his parents. Winfrid grew in holiness and piety but yearned to leave the monastery and bring the light of Christ to the pagan Germans just as the monks had brought the Faith to England a century earlier. Winfrid heard reports that Pope Gregory II (r. 715-731) had sent missionaries to Bavaria in 716 and decided to travel to Rome to become a missionary to the Germans. Pope Gregory was delighted at the arrival of the eager Winfrid and after a period of time commissioned him to preach the Gospel in the regions of Thuringia, Bavaria, Franconia, and Hesse. In recognition of his special missionary commission, the pope also changed Winfrid’s name to Boniface.

The newly named monk traveled to Hesse (central Germany) in 721 and “with his tireless activity, his gift for organization, and his adaptable, friendly, yet firm character” achieved great success, including the conversion of the twin chieftains Dettic and Deorulf.[2] Boniface also established Benedictine monasteries throughout his area of evangelization, including the great monastery of Fulda in 744.[3] News of his great achievements reached Rome, where he was recalled by Pope Gregory to provide a status report. Impressed and pleased with Boniface’s efforts, Gregory consecrated him archbishop for all Germany east of the Rhine (without a specific episcopal seat) and placed his territory under the pope’s jurisdiction. Imbued with this new authority and pontifical mandate, Boniface returned to Germany in 723.

Boniface spent the rest of his life evangelizing the areas of modern Germany and parts of the Netherlands. He also became a friend of the Frankish court and helped reform and reorganized the Church in that area. From his missionary travels, Boniface knew that in winter the inhabitants of the village of Geismar gathered around a huge old oak tree (known as the “Thunder Oak”) dedicated to the god Thor. This annual event of worship centered on sacrificing a human, usually a small child, to the pagan god. Boniface desired to convert the village by destroying the Thunder Oak, which the pagans had previously boasted the God of Boniface could not destroy, so he gathered a few companions and journeyed to Geismar.

His fellow missionaries were scared and fearful that the Germans might kill them, so they balked when they reached the outskirts of the village on Christmas Eve. Boniface steadied the nerves of his friends and as they approached the pagan gathering he said, “Here is the Thunder Oak; and here the cross of Christ shall break the hammer of the false god Thor.”[4] Boniface and his friends arrived at the time of the sacrifice, which was interrupted by their presence. In a show of great trust in God and born from a desire to enkindle the fire of Christ in the German pagans, Boniface grabbed an axe and chopped down the Thunder Oak of mighty Thor.

The Germans were astounded. The holy bishop preached the Gospel to the people and used a little fir tree that was behind the now felled oak tree as a tool of evangelization. Pointing to it he said,

“This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace… It is the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are ever green. See how it points upward to heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ-child; gather about it, not in the wild wood, but in your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rites of kindness.”[5]

Awed by the destruction of the oak tree and Boniface’s preaching, the Germans were baptized.

Boniface continued his missionary efforts into old age when in 754, he left for a trip to Frisia with fifty monks. Their work was successful and many pagans agreed to receive baptism. When the appointed time came to celebrate the sacrament, a large armed crowd of pagans approached the missionaries. Knowing his time to die was at hand, Boniface discouraged his followers from fighting and said, “Cease my sons, from fighting, give up warfare for the witness of Scripture recommends that we do not give an eye for an eye but rather good for evil. Here is the long awaited day; the time of our end has now come; courage in the Lord!”[6] The ferocious pagan attack left Boniface and his fellow companions dead and celebrated as martyrs for the Faith.

His later biographer, Othlo, recalled Boniface’s deep love for the people who he endeavored for so long to bring to Christ:

The holy bishop Boniface can call himself father of all the inhabitants of Germany, for it was he who first brought them forth in Christ with the words of his holy preaching; he strengthened them with his example; and lastly, he gave his life for them; no greater love than this can be shown.”[7]

In the centuries that followed, the Catholic tradition of using an evergreen tree to celebrate the birth of Jesus spread throughout Germany, and German immigrants in the eighteenth century brought the custom to the New World. Although there are many stories, legends, and myths surrounding the founding of the Christmas tree, including the claim that the custom originated with Martin Luther, there is only one story rooted in a real person and a real event: Boniface, converter of the Germans, who destroyed Thor’s mighty oak.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

[1] John Vidmar, OP, The Catholic Church Through the Ages (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005), 83.

[2] Pope Benedict XVI Wednesday Catechesis on “Saint Boniface, the Apostle of the Germans”, on March 11, 2009in Church Fathers and Teachers – From Saint Leo the Great to Peter Lombard (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 80.

[3] Boniface placed Fulda under the jurisdiction of the papacy, which was a novel concept at the time. This was the same arrangement for the more well-known monastery at Cluny in the early tenth century.

[4] Fr. William P. Saunders “The Christmas Tree”, Straight Answers article in the Arlington Catholic Herald, available at http://www.holyspiritinteractive.net/columns/williamsaunders/straightanswers/68.asp.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Willibald, Vita S. Bonifatii, ed. cit., 46. Quoted in, Pope Benedict XVI, Wednesday Catechesis on “Saint Boniface”,March 11, 2009.

[7] Othlo, Vita S. Bonifatii, ed. cit., lib. I, 158. Quoted in, Pope Benedict XVI, Wednesday Catechesis on “Saint Boniface”,March 11, 2009.

[8] The Washington Post – The Mini Page, “O Tannenbaum*!”, December 6, 2009, SC5. For Boniface chopping the oak tree see Fr. John Laux, Church History – A Complete History of the Catholic Church to the Present Day (Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., 1989), 221 & Warren H. Carroll, The Building of Christendom (Front Royal, VA: Christendom College Press, 1987), 276.

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

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