Christmastide: December 2006 Archives

Adoro Te Devote, Latens Deitas

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Caesar van Everdingen painted this magnificent Holy Family in 1660. Saint Joseph, with the open book of the Scriptures on his lap, appears absorbed by the immensity of the mystery entrusted to him. If you look closely you will see that he holds his reading glasses in his right hand. This Joseph is in the prime of life; he is manly and strong. The Virgin Mother and the Infant Christ gaze straight ahead at us.

The Living Bread Entrusted to Saint Joseph

The feast of the Holy Family invites us to confess a God who comes close, a God who comes down, a God who disappears into what is human to reveal therein what is divine, a God who assumes all that is human to confer what is divine. All the shadows and figures of the Old Testament converge in Christ the Sacrament of God, the Child of the Virgin Mary, born in Bethlehem. the “House of Bread,” and entrusted to Joseph.

Joseph Most Obedient

Look closely at the obedience of Saint Joseph, his obedience in the dark night of faith. Joseph’s obedience allows the whole mystery of Israel — the going down into Egypt and the back up — to be revealed and completed in Christ. In some way the “Do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19) of the Last Supper is made possible by Joseph’s obedience to the commandments delivered to him in the night.

Twice Saint Joseph obeys the word of the angel who visits him by night. Twice Saint Matthew uses the very same formula to evoke the obedience of Saint Joseph: “And Joseph rose and too the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt” (Mt 2:14); and again, “And he rose and took the child and his mother and went into the land of Israel” (Mt 2:21).

Where is the source of Saint Joseph’s obedience? Is it in the word of the Angel? The Angel appears in a dream. Is anything more fleeting than a dream? If we remember our dreams at all in the morning, we do so in a vague and hazy way. Rarely do we find in our dreams the strength to make great changes in our lives. Dreams may sow suggestions in the imagination; rarely do we translate them into action, especially when they ask of us what Saint Benedict calls “things that are hard and repugnant to nature in the way to God” (RB 58:8).

The Viaticum of Saint Joseph

Saint Joseph finds the strength to obey in the Infant Christ, his Viaticum. He finds it in the presence of “the living bread which came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51). He gazes upon the Child held against the breast of the Virgin, and from that contemplation draws the strength and the courage to pass from dreams to action — to obey. The Infant Christ was the Viaticum of Saint Joseph: his food for the journey.

Et cum hominibus conversatus est

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Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Year C
Sunday Within the Octave of Christmas

1 Samuel 1:20-22. 24-28
Psalm 83
1 John 3:1-2. 21-24
Luke 2:41-52

The Hearts of Grandmothers

The life of families, like that of the Church, is, more often than not, carried in the arms of women and held against their hearts. In Ukraine and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, during the years of Soviet Communist repression, faith and family were held together by a silent but formidable army of church-going little grandmothers, poor women content to pour out their hearts for their husbands, their children, and their grandchildren, weeping and groaning before the holy icons in their temples.

Hannah’s Oblation

Holy Hannah in today’s first reading is the prototype of all the women who weep and pray in the temples of the world, saving it from annihilation. Hannah is familiar to us; we sing her canticle at Lauds in the Divine Office. Humiliated by her childlessness, the dreaded curse of all women in the Old Testament, Hannah went on pilgrimage to Shiloh. There, “deeply distressed,” she prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly and loudly, disturbing even the priest Eli (1 Sam 1:10-18). God heard her plea and, counting her tears, gave her a son, Samuel. Hannah vowed to give back to God the child received from God “that he may appear in the presence of the Lord and abide there forever” (1 Sam 1:22). And so it is, that Samuel, God’s gift to Hannah, becomes Hannah’s offering to God. “I have made him over to the Lord," she declares, "for as long as he lives” (1 Sam 1:28).

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Samuel

Little Samuel, “appearing in the presence of the Lord and abiding there forever” (1 Sam 1:22) is a figure of Christ who ministers “in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord” (Heb 8:2). Hannah is a figure of the Virgin Mother Mary, a figure of the Church, a figure of every one who, with faith and hope, sheds bitter tears in the presence of the Lord.

Praise

The Responsorial Psalm emphasizes that praise is the outstanding characteristic of those who dwell in the house of the Lord. “Blessed are they who dwell in your house! Continually they praise you” (Ps 83:4). This is true of the house of Nazareth in which the Praise of the Father dwelt in the flesh. It is true of the Church. It is also true of the monastery in which Christ dwells. Uninterrupted praise is a sign of the abiding presence of Christ in our midst. If praise is to flourish among us we cannot go around locked in introspection, moaning over ourselves and grumbling about others; we have to seek Christ in the eyes of those whom God has given us to love. Every human relationship, every friendship, every situation of life together, is potentially sacramental, that is, charged with grace, and where grace abounds, praise flourishes irrepressible.

The Household of God

In the Second Lesson, Saint John tells us that the Father has given us His love; we are His children (1 Jn 3:1), the cherished members of His household, the family of God. Saint Benedict sets up the monastery as the household of God; the perfection of life together in the monastery is liberation from fear. We don’t always get that piece of the Benedictine paradigm quite right. Fear causes one to lie or at least to dissimulate what one is really thinking. Fear is at the root of the scheming and whispering, the possesiveness and unwillingness to change that so often poison life together. In monastic communities, as in marriages and friendships, fear is the silent killer. Saint Benedict is clear: if we persevere in climbing the ladder of humility in the context of life together, we will arrive, through the Holy Spirit, at “the love of God which, being perfect, drives out all fear” (RB 7:67-68).

Anna of the Face of God

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December 30
Sixth Day of the Octave of Christmas

1 John 2:12-17
Luke 2:36-40

Holy Anna

The sacred liturgy treats the holy prophetess Anna, daughter of Phanuel, with a particular sympathy. It is worthy of note that the Lectionary separates the account of her meeting with the Holy Family from that of Simeon, by whom she is often overshadowed. Holy Anna, in her own right, is deserving of more than just a passing consideration. December 30th is her day.

Miriam

Saint Luke introduces the prophetess Anna as the worthy representative of all the prophetesses of the Old Testament. First among these is Myriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron. After the crossing of the Red Sea and the spectacular defeat of the Egyptians by the mighty hand of God, Myriam, “the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dancing. And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea’” (Ex 15:20-21). Miriam’s ecstatic singing and dancing roused the Israelites to the heights of an impassioned devotion; thus did she bear witness to the immanence of the Spirit of God.

Deborah

In the Book of Judges we encounter Deborah, prophetess, judge, and “mother in Israel” (Judg 5:7). “She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel, in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came to her for judgment” (Judg 4:4-5). In many ways, Deborah, the heroine of Israel, bears a resemblance to Joan of Arc. When Deborah directs Barak to go to war against Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, Barak replies, “If you go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go” (Judg 4:8). Sisera is put to death at the hands of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. Deborah, learning of the demise of the enemy, intones, together with Barak, a rather blood-curdling hymn of victory.

Deus noster in terris visus est

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December 29
The Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas

1 John 2:3-11
Luke 2:22-35

Victim, Priest, and Temple

The very first sentence of today’s holy gospel evokes a profound sense of the sacred. “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord” (Lk 2:22). The verb to present is part of the ritual vocabulary of the Temple. It denotes a liturgical action, a priestly function. Concerning the Jewish priest, we read in the book of Deuteronomy that “the Lord your God has chosen him out of all your tribes, to present himself and minister before the Lord” (Dt 18:5). The same verb is used to designate the offering, the presentation of the victim made over to God. Saint Paul, for example, writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom 12:1). Christ comes to the Temple as both victim and priest and, by His coming, He fulfills that word of the prophet Malachi so gloriously interpreted by Handel in The Messiah: “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His Temple” (Mal 3:1).

The Four Righteous Elders

Simeon, coming upon the scene, reveals the hidden meaning of this presentation just as, in every sacrament and liturgical rite, the Word discloses the meaning of the sacred action. Simeon is one of four elders who, in the bright iconography of Saint Luke’s infancy narrative, surround the Infant Christ. Elizabeth, Zachary, Simeon, and Anna — all four, righteous and devout — are the venerable and last representatives of the old covenant. In their person, as Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote in his well-known Eucharistic hymn, “the former, ancient rites give way to the new.”

The Consoler

Saint Luke describes Simeon as “looking for the consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25). Consolation is the meaning of the name of Noah, the first saviour of the human race at the time of the flood. At the birth of Noah, Lamech, his father, prophesied, saying, “This one shall console us in our sorrows and in the toil of our hands” (Gen 5:29). Noah, the consoler and saviour, is a type, a figure of Christ. The true Consoler, the true Saviour is God himself, even as He spoke through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah: “I, I am He that comforts you” (Is 51:12).

To Treasure the Infant Christ

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December 28
Feast of the Holy Innocents

1 John 1:5-2:2
Matthew 2:13-18

The Child in Egypt

The name Egypt occurs three times in today’s gospel. “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt” (Mt 2:13). “And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt” (Mt 2:14). And finally, Saint Matthew cites the prophet Hosea, “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Mt 2:15; Hos 11:1). As with so many proper names of persons and places in Sacred Scripture, Egypt enfolds and discloses a deeper mystery.

Egypt is a name and a place charged with ambivalence. On the one hand, it is the land of abundance, a refuge in time of famine (Gen 12:10; 42:1-3), a safe place for the political refugee (1 K 11:40; Jr 26:21). On the other hand, Egypt symbolizes the servitude and genocide out of which the Lord delivered his people. Hear the words of the Lord, speaking to Moses out of the burning bush: “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3:7-8).

The descent of the Infant Christ into Egypt and his return is a fundamental points of correspondence between the Old Testament and the New. The Infant Christ is the new Joseph in Egypt. In Christ, the words spoken concerning Joseph are fulfilled: “The Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was upon all that he had, in house and field” (Gen 39:5). Like the innocent Joseph, the innocent Christ is a guest in Egypt, receiving Egyptian hospitality, finding in Egypt a place of safety, a refuge from the murderous threats born of jealousy.

The Blood of Jesus

Christ is the new Moses and Christ is the Paschal Lamb in Egypt slain. His blood marks the souls of the faithful as once the blood of the immolated lamb marked the doorposts and lintels of the houses of the Jews in Egypt (cf. Ex 12:7). This is the very blood of which Saint John speaks in today’s first reading, saying, “the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin” (1 Jn 1:7).

O Bambino mio Divino

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Tu scendi dalle stelle
O Re del Cielo
E vieni in una grotta
Al freddo al gelo

O Bambino mio Divino
Io ti vedo qui a tremar,
O Dio Beato
Ah, quanti ti costo
L'avermi amato

The splendid Poor Ladies of Ty Mam Duw Monastery in Wales sent me this photo of their Bambino Gesù. Seeing it made me want to sing Tu scendi dalle stelle!

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The Gospel of the Father

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I like this painting by the Dominican Fra Bartolomeo (1473–1517), a disciple of Savonarola, because it shows our Holy Father Saint Bernard together with Saint John the Evangelist and our Holy Father Saint Benedict. The Virgin Mother is looking at the Bambino Gesù while the Bambino looks at Saint Bernard. An angel holds the open book of the Scriptures before Bernard, but Bernard is not reading the text. His eyes are raised to contemplate the Infant Christ. Bernard has passed from the written word to the Word made flesh. Saint John the Evangelist, pointing to his heart, looks on; he recognizes that Bernard is of his spiritual family. Saint Benedict, full of gravity and peace, remains in the background with his hands crossed over his breast, an expression of humility.

December 27
Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist

1 John 1:1-4
Psalm 97:1-2, 5-6, 11-12
John 20:2-8

A Liturgical Theology of the Trinity

On Christmas Day, our eyes were fixed on the Light, the Word made flesh, the Son eternally begotten of the Father. Yesterday, the feast of Saint Stephen the Protomartyr drew our attention to the Holy Spirit indwelling and overshadowing the Body of Christ. Today, Saint John the Beloved Disciple, venerated in the East as Saint John the Theologian (or John the Divine), draws our hearts to the mystery of the Eternal Father. We have, in these first three days of Christmastide, a liturgical theology of the Trinity.

The Gospel of the Father

The Gospel of Saint John has been called the Gospel of the Father and rightly so, for it is the particular charism of Saint John to lead us through the Word made flesh, and by the Word made flesh, and with the Word made flesh, into the bosom of the Father. The magnificent First Preface of Christmas wonderfully expresses the essential movement of Saint John’s Gospel. “By the mystery of your Word made flesh, a new and radiant light floods our spiritual eyes so that, even as we know God in what is visible, we are ravished (rapiamur) unto the love of things invisible.” This sentence of the Christmas Preface is a distillation of the mystical theology of Saint John. Proceeding from what is revealed, we are drawn into what is concealed. Holding fast to what is shown, we are held in the embrace of what is hidden.

Communion

This is the joy of Saint John. “The eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 Jn 1:3). The English word fellowship translates here the Greek koinonia and the Latin communio. Saint John is saying, “Our communion is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” Now, communion simply means “union with.” “Our communion is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” But communion is also used in the New Testament to designate the presence and the effect of the Holy Spirit. We have communion — union with — the Father and with the Son by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. This is why Saint John writes in the same epistle, “By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because he has given us of His own Spirit” (1 Jn 4:13).

Drink to the Love of Saint John!

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BLESSING OF WINE ON THE FEAST OF SAINT JOHN, APOSTLE AND EVANGELIST

On the Feast of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist, at the end of the principal Mass, that is, after the last Gospel, the priest, retaining all his vestments except the maniple, in the following manner blesses wine brought by the people in memory and in honor of Saint John, who drank poison without harm:

V. Our help is in the name of the Lord.
R. Who has made heaven and earth.

V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Be so kind as to bless and consecrate with Your right hand, Lord, this cup of wine, and every drink. Grant that by the merits of Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, all who believe in You and drink of this cup may be blessed and protected. Blessed John drank poison from the cup, and was in no way harmed. So, too, may all who this day drink from this cup in honor of blessed John, by his merits, be freed from every sickness by poisoning and from any harms whatever. And, when they have offered themselves in both soul and body, may they be freed, too, from every fault, through Christ our Lord.
R. Amen.

Bless, Lord, this beverage which You have made. May it be a healthful refreshment to all who drink of it. And grant by the invocation of Your holy name that whoever tastes of it may, by Your generosity receive health of both soul and body, through Christ our Lord.
R. Amen

And may the blessing of almighty God, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, descend upon this wine which He has made, and upon every drink, and remain always.
R. Amen.

And it is sprinkled with Holy Water. If this blessing is given outside of Mass, the priest performs it in the manner described above, but with surplice and stole.

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This Saint John the Evangelist was painted by Francesco Furini sometime in the 1630s. Today it hangs in the Musée des Beaux–Arts of Lyon.

December 27
Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist

1 John 1:1-4
Psalm 96: 1-2. 5-6. 11-12. R. v.12
John 20: 2-8

The Logic of the Liturgy

The liturgy has a marvelous logic all its own. On this second day of the Christmas octave, Mother Church gives us an Easter Gospel! While we are yet at the manger, the liturgy compels us to run to the empty tomb! John, the disciple whom Jesus loved is there before us. His virginal love gave wings to his feet. “Draw me in your footsteps, says the bride of the Canticle, let us run” (Ct 1:4). John is the first of those who “hasten with swift pace and light step and unstumbling feet,” arriving even before Peter, and yet deferring to him.

Peter and John

Hans Urs von Balthasar speaks of a double authority in the Church, a double ministry: the Petrine and Johannine. The Petrine authority is firmly established by Christ on the solid rock of Peter; it continues in the Church through the ministry of Peter’s successors, teaching, reproving, testing, correcting, forgiving and calling together in unity. The Johannine authority speaks with the voice of love, with the inimitable accents of direct experience. It is the authority of the saints and mystics, the authority of holiness, the authority of the greatly loved and of the great lovers. “ I belong to my love, and my love to me” (Ct 6:3).

What We Have Seen and Heard

The Church has need of both voices. She needs the strong, unwavering voice of Peter; she also needs the many-voiced Johannine chorus of those who sing: “Something which has existed since the beginning, that we have heard, and we have seen with our own eyes; that we have contemplated and touched with our own hands: the Word who is life—this is our theme. That life was made visible; we saw it and are giving our testimony. . . . We declare to you what we have seen and heard, so that you too may share our life” (1 Jn 1:1-3).

Love of Things Invisible

The Johannine chorus speaks with the unmistakable authority of those who have gone into the wine-cellar and rested beneath the banner of love (cf. Ct 2:4-5). Their breath is fragrant with honey and with the honeycomb, of wine and of milk: that is with the imperishable sweetness of the Holy Spirit, with the Blood of the Lamb and with the pure milk of the living Word of God. These are the ones who have eaten and drunk, drunk deeply (cf. Ct 5:1) of the streams of living water that flow ever fresh from the pierced Heart of the Bridegroom (cf. Jn 7:37-38). These are the descendants of Saint John the Beloved, those to whom the Father has given the eagle’s vision, those who are little enough and poor enough to be borne aloft and carried away into the “love of things invisible,” as the Christmas Preface puts it.

Radiant Beams from Thy Holy Face

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This painting by Bernardino Luini (1480–1532) shows Saint Katherine of Alexandria and Saint Barbara, Virgin Martyrs, in the company of the Infant Christ and His Virgin Mother. The little Jesus is opening the pages of the Scripures. This He does for all who seek His Face. "No man hath seen God at any time: the only–begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him (Jn 1:18)

Be sure to visit my friend Terry at Abbey–Roads. His post on devotion to the Child Jesus is wonderful. Those graced with a special love for Our Lord in the mysteries of His infancy and childhood can attest to the healing power of this devotion. There is nothing sentimental about it: it takes one to the very heart of the Gospel and opens one's eyes to the glory of God shining on the Face of His Incarnate Word.

In principio erat Verbum

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This is an extraordinary painting of the Nativity, principally because of the crucifix on the rustic shelf inside the stable. It is the work of Lorenzo Lotto (1480–1556). The nakedness of the Child in the manger presages His nakedness on the cross. His arms are outstretched in the manger as on the cross. In Bethlehem, the Virgin Mother and Saint Joseph contemplate Him; on Calvary the Virgin Mother and Saint John will look upon Him pierced.


According to an ancient monastic tradition, there is no homily at the Mass of Christmas Day. The Prologue of Saint John — the mystery of the Word out of silence — calls for an adoring silence. In some monasteries the Prologue of Saint John is sung to an exquisite First Mode melody. The Prologue is a Gospel that simply has to be sung. And after it, there has to be silence. After the Word — no other words. Tacere et adorare.

Saint John the Theologian presents us with the ineffable mystery of the Word: the Word facing the Father from all eternity; the Word made flesh, pitching his tent among us, that we might see his glory. Before the glory of the Word, all other words fall silent. In the presence of the Word, human discourse stammers and fails. Silence alone is worthy of the mystery.

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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