Christmastide: December 2007 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).

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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 — from that spiritual communion — 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.

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine

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The Fifth Day in the Octave of the Nativity of the Lord

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

The Child Jesus, Priest and Victim

The very first sentence of today’s Holy Gospel evokes the mystery of sacrifice. “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). The Child Jesus comes to the Temple as both Priest and Victim 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).

Saint Simeon

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 Child 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 is God Himself, even as He spoke through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah: “I, I am He that comforts you” (Is 51:12). The little Child, carried to the temple in His mother’s arms, fulfills all the types and prophecies of the Old Testament. The little Child Jesus is God come in the flesh to console us “in our sorrows and in the toil of our hands” (Gen 5:29). The Infant Christ is the long-awaited Paraclete, the very word used in the Greek text of today’s Gospel. At the hour of His Pasch, He will promise the gift of another Paraclete. “I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Paraclete, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:16).

The Passion of 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 point 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).

In principio erat Verbum

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Last night, in his Christmas homily, Pope Benedict XVI said, "In the stable of Bethlehem, the very town where it had all begun, the Davidic kingship started again in a new way - in that child wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. The new throne from which this David will draw the world to himself is the Cross. The new throne - the Cross - corresponds to the new beginning in the stable."

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. At Mass today I will sing the Gospel of the Prologue of Saint John 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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