Christmastide: December 2009 Archives

Holy Innocents

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Rubens' Virgin and Child surrounded by a wreath of chubby, pink Innocents (c. 1618) is delightful. Notice the almost mischievous smile of Baby Jesus. Does He want to leave His Mother's arms to play with His little friends? Or do His little friends want to climb up into the Virgin Mother's lap?

Snow blanketed Eastern Oklahoma on Christmas Eve, and so, in the warmth of the oratory of the Cenacle, the altar aglow with candles, I celebrated Matins, the Mass in Nocte, and, yes, even Lauds. Christmas Day began with Prime and the Mass of dawn.* After Sext, the Mass of the day, and None, I went to the kitchen to prepare Christmas dinner. By Vespers I realized that I had a serious cold or bronchitis and so, leaving Vespers to the choirs of angels, took to my bed. The following morning I called my good friend Dr. Loper who was kind enough to make a house call and prescribe an antibiotic. It will be several days before I will have enough voice to resume singing the Office . . . but in the meantime life goes on.

Dr. Loper came to the Cenacle for Prime and Chapter this morning. This was his first experience of Chapter. The section of the Holy Rule appointed for 28 December is Chaper 70, "That No One Venture to Punish at Random"! When I comment on the Holy Rule, I always try to identify the phrase or phrases that best capture the essence of the section that has been read. Today's key phrases would be: With all moderation and discretion, and Do not to another what you would not want done to yourself.

Moderation in all things is a characteristically Benedictine virtue The Benedictine -- monk, nun, or oblate -- avoids the excessive and the superfluous, and seeks to maintain in all things the good measure dictated by wisdom and prudence. For Saint Benedict, discretion was an all-encompassing virtue, gracing the way of monastic conversion with order, harmony, and balance. Where there is order, harmony, and balance, there will be beauty.

For most of my life, I have been working at acquiring the virtues of moderation and discretion. Not easy when one has the mercurial temperament of a Southern Italian and Celtic ancestry! Excess is in my blood. While the Irish monks of old were known for their excessive austerities and harsh penances, my ancestors of the Kingdom of Naples and the Two Sicilies were known for . . . well . . . other excesses better left unnamed.

There is a reason why we Benedictines listen to the reading of the Holy Rule day after day, and this over a lifetime. The Rule reveals its wisdom only to those who, being thoroughly familiar with the letter of the text, are disposed to go beyond it, to the grand principles holy living that it embodies.

* Brother Juan Diego, being the only novice at present, asked if he might return to his family in Florida until such time as a novitiate of several men might be constituted. When he began the novitiate, we both thought that he would be able to soldier on, but it became apparent that, within the context of enclosed monastic life, he needed more companionship and exchange than I alone could provide.

The Holy Family

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Family

Family. The word is charged with emotion. Our happiest memories and our saddest ones are usually linked to the experience of family. Some people remember, or choose to remember, only the good things associated with family. Others reinvent a past altogether too painful to remember as it really was. Still others spend a lot of time and money recovering from their experience of family.

Brightnesses and Shadows

Family has never been a simple reality. If it has its brightnesses, it is not without its shadows. There is the public face of family, and there are family secrets. All of this is as old as the genealogy of Jesus himself. Because all of this is assumed in the mystery of the Incarnation, nothing of it lies beyond the mystery of the Redemption. When a word as emotionally and culturally charged as family is brought into the spiritually charged ambit of the liturgy, we find ourselves treading on landmines. Nothing is gained by pretending that today's feast, while rich in graces for all, is not problematic for some.

Come Lately to the Calendar

The feast of the Holy Family is a very recent addition to the Church's calendar. It draws from two different currents: first, a devotion originating in seventeenth century France; and second, a pastoral response to the crisis in family life provoked by the industrial revolution, by the First World War, and by dramatic changes in the social order, economy, and politics.

Incarnate Wisdom

In seventeenth century France, confraternities of pious layfolk fostered devotion to the Holy Family; some of these played a role in the establishment of the Church in North America. At that time, the expression "Holy Family" was understood in reference to the extended family: to Saint Joachim and Saint Anne as well as to Saint Joseph, the Virgin Mother, and the Child Jesus. The French school of spirituality understood devotion to the Holy Family as a way of contemplating the Wisdom of God in the flesh: the hidden God, humble, silent, obedient, and poor.

The Holy Family and Families

The great Jesuit missionaries; the Ursuline, Blessed Marie of the Incarnation; and especially the Sulpicians in their seminaries, fostered attention to the Holy Family and to the constellation of devotions that evolved in its orbit: the Child Jesus, the Child Mary and her Presentation in the Temple, good Saint Anne and, of course, Saint Joseph. After the French Revolution, there was a resurgence of interest in the Holy Family. The need to minister to families in distress was painfully urgent; the 1800's saw the foundation of a multitude of religious institutes under the patronage of the Holy Family, dedicated to the healing and promotion of family life, especially by education.

Introduction of the Feast

In the last century, still so close to us, the suffering of families --especially of widows and orphans-- in the aftermath of World War I, the fall of the European monarchies, and the triumph of political regimes hostile to the Church and to Christian education, induced Pope Benedict XV to establish in 1921 a feast of the Holy Family on the Sunday within the Octave of the Epiphany. In the mind of Pope Benedict XV, the new feast was an exercise of the Church's magisterium, exalting domestic virtues, and serving as a public declaration of the Church's teaching on the political and social questions that strike at the heart of family life.

Liturgical Reform

In the reformed calendar the feast of the Holy Family has been moved to the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas. In the feast's reformed liturgy all but one of the Proper Chants of the Mass have been changed; the prayers of the Mass have been substantially reworked; and the Lectionary provides readings corresponding to the Three Year Cycle.

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A Feast for All

The feast of the Holy Family is, at the deepest level, more than a social lesson or an ethical exhortation. Were it merely that, it would fail to reach the great numbers of those who, for one reason or another, live outside the conventional patterns of family life. I am thinking of the single, the bereaved, the divorced, the widowed, the orphaned, and those of us who, having embraced virginity for the sake of the kingdom, deliberately choose to forsake marriage, physical motherhood, fatherhood, and family in favour of a state of life that remains at once a question and a paradox.

In the Cloister

While a monastery is like a family, it is not a family according to the natural order of things. Monastic relationships are patterned after family life but they do not reproduce family life -- nor should they. Already in the deserts of Palestine and Egypt, monks and nuns were calling each other brother and sister, father --abba-- and mother --amma. Saint Benedict says that the abbot "must always bear in mind what he is called" (RB 2:1). He says that the cellarer is to be "a father to the whole community" (RB 31:2). He would have seniors call their juniors "brother," and juniors call their seniors "nonni," a word that, even today, in Italian is the affectionate and respectful term used for grandparents. In monasteries we call each other brother and sister, mother and father, and yet, in so doing, we must be perfectly aware that we mean both less and more than what we mean when we use the same terms in the context of a biological family unit.

The Most Holy Trinity

The feast of the Holy Family invites to us to ask ourselves if there are, in fact, any compelling reasons why monastics, who are "like a family, but not a family" should hold to the "family" model at all. Only if we dare to ask the question will elements of an answer begin to come into the light. Looking closely at the Holy Family we do not see the conventional model; we see a Virgin Mother, a Foster Father, and a mysterious Only Child. We also see --and this is where the model reaches us-- a mirror of the Most Holy Trinity in which each person lives in movement toward the other; receiving himself from the other, and giving himself for the other. This is family at the deepest level; it is from this level that it speaks to the monastic community.

Holy Mass: Healing the Family

In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we are brought into the communion of the Most Holy Trinity, a Family unlike any other, and yet the pattern for all life together, be it that of the conventional family, or of the monastic community. The Most Holy Eucharist is the Sacrament of Unity: the mystery by which we are drawn out of ourselves toward the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. In the Most Holy Eucharist we experience, at the deepest level, what it is to be persons-in-relationship, members of One Body.

One Family By Virtue of the Precious Blood

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, by drawing us after the priest into the bosom of of the Father, through and with the Son, in the Holy Spirit, plunges into Divine Love, the only Love capable of healing souls and of reconciling families scarred and broken apart by sin. The Precious Blood of Christ poured out for the many is, ultimately, what makes sinners into a "Holy Family," like that of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

In principio erat Verbum

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The Wood of Crèche and of Cross

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.

Adoring Silence

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 what the Venerable John Paul II described as an "adoring silence." At the third Holy Mass today I will sing the Gospel of the Prologue of Saint John to an exquisite First Mode melody adapted from the one found here. The Prologue simply has to be sung. And after it, there has to be silence. After the Word, no other words. Tacere et adorare.

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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.

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Here is the official English-language translation of Pope Benedict XVI's magnificent homily, delivered in Italian during the Mass in the Night of the Nativity of the Lord in Saint Peter's Basilica. At the heart of his homily the Holy Father quotes the Rule of Saint Benedict, so much is it a part of him. And affirms that, for monks, the Liturgy is the first priority. Everything else, he says, comes later.

No Longer the Distant God

Dear Brothers and Sisters! "A child is born for us, a son is given to us" (Is 9:5). What Isaiah prophesied as he gazed into the future from afar, consoling Israel amid its trials and its darkness, is now proclaimed to the shepherds as a present reality by the Angel, from whom a cloud of light streams forth: "To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord" (Lk 2:11). The Lord is here. From this moment, God is truly "God with us". No longer is he the distant God who can in some way be perceived from afar, in creation and in our own consciousness. He has entered the world. He is close to us. The words of the risen Christ to his followers are addressed also to us: "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:20). For you the Saviour is born: through the Gospel and those who proclaim it, God now reminds us of the message that the Angel announced to the shepherds. It is a message that cannot leave us indifferent. If it is true, it changes everything. If it is true, it also affects me. Like the shepherds, then, I too must say: Come on, I want to go to Bethlehem to see the Word that has occurred there. The story of the shepherds is included in the Gospel for a reason. They show us the right way to respond to the message that we too have received. What is it that these first witnesses of God's incarnation have to tell us?

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In Every Soul: the Desire for God

The first thing we are told about the shepherds is that they were on the watch they could hear the message precisely because they were awake. We must be awake, so that we can hear the message. We must become truly vigilant people. What does this mean? The principal difference between someone dreaming and someone awake is that the dreamer is in a world of his own. His "self" is locked into this dreamworld that is his alone and does not connect him with others. To wake up means to leave that private world of one's own and to enter the common reality, the truth that alone can unite all people. Conflict and lack of reconciliation in the world stem from the fact that we are locked into our own interests and opinions, into our own little private world. Selfishness, both individual and collective, makes us prisoners of our interests and our desires that stand against the truth and separate us from one another. Awake, the Gospel tells us. Step outside, so as to enter the great communal truth, the communion of the one God. To awake, then, means to develop a receptivity for God: for the silent promptings with which he chooses to guide us; for the many indications of his presence. There are people who describe themselves as "religiously tone deaf". The gift of a capacity to perceive God seems as if it is withheld from some. And indeed our way of thinking and acting, the mentality of today's world, the whole range of our experience is inclined to deaden our receptivity for God, to make us "tone deaf" towards him. And yet in every soul, the desire for God, the capacity to encounter him, is present, whether in a hidden way or overtly. In order to arrive at this vigilance, this awakening to what is essential, we should pray for ourselves and for others, for those who appear "tone deaf" and yet in whom there is a keen desire for God to manifest himself. The great theologian Origen said this: if I had the grace to see as Paul saw, I could even now (during the Liturgy) contemplate a great host of angels (cf. in Lk 23:9). And indeed, in the sacred liturgy, we are surrounded by the angels of God and the saints. The Lord himself is present in our midst. Lord, open the eyes of our hearts, so that we may become vigilant and clear-sighted, in this way bringing you close to others as well!

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For Monks, the Liturgy is the First Priority

Let us return to the Christmas Gospel. It tells us that after listening to the Angel's message, the shepherds said one to another: "'Let us go over to Bethlehem' they went at once" (Lk 2:15f.). "They made haste" is literally what the Greek text says. What had been announced to them was so important that they had to go immediately. In fact, what had been said to them was utterly out of the ordinary. It changed the world. The Saviour is born. The long-awaited Son of David has come into the world in his own city. What could be more important? No doubt they were partly driven by curiosity, but first and foremost it was their excitement at the wonderful news that had been conveyed to them, of all people, to the little ones, to the seemingly unimportant. They made haste they went at once. In our daily life, it is not like that. For most people, the things of God are not given priority, they do not impose themselves on us directly And so the great majority of us tend to postpone them. First we do what seems urgent here and now. In the list of priorities God is often more or less at the end. We can always deal with that later, we tend to think. The Gospel tells us: God is the highest priority. If anything in our life deserves haste without delay, then, it is God's work alone. The Rule of Saint Benedict contains this teaching: "Place nothing at all before the work of God (i.e. the Divine Office)". For monks, the Liturgy is the first priority. Everything else comes later. In its essence, though, this saying applies to everyone. God is important, by far the most important thing in our lives. The shepherds teach us this priority. From them we should learn not to be crushed by all the pressing matters in our daily lives. From them we should learn the inner freedom to put other tasks in second place however important they may be so as to make our way towards God, to allow him into our lives and into our time. Time given to God and, in his name, to our neighbour is never time lost. It is the time when we are most truly alive, when we live our humanity to the full.

Some commentators point out that the shepherds, the simple souls, were the first to come to Jesus in the manger and to encounter the Redeemer of the world. The wise men from the East, representing those with social standing and fame, arrived much later. The commentators go on to say: this is quite natural. The shepherds lived nearby. They only needed to "come over" (cf. Lk 2:15), as we do when we go to visit our neighbours. The wise men, however, lived far away. They had to undertake a long and arduous journey in order to arrive in Bethlehem. And they needed guidance and direction. Today too there are simple and lowly souls who live very close to the Lord. They are, so to speak, his neighbours and they can easily go to see him. But most of us in the world today live far from Jesus Christ, the incarnate God who came to dwell amongst us. We live our lives by philosophies, amid worldly affairs and occupations that totally absorb us and are a great distance from the manger. In all kinds of ways, God has to prod us and reach out to us again and again, so that we can manage to escape from the muddle of our thoughts and activities and discover the way that leads to him. But a path exists for all of us. The Lord provides everyone with tailor-made signals. He calls each one of us, so that we too can say: "Come on, 'let us go over' to Bethlehem to the God who has come to meet us. Yes indeed, God has set out towards us. Left to ourselves we could not reach him. The path is too much for our strength. But God has come down. He comes towards us. He has travelled the longer part of the journey. Now he invites us: come and see how much I love you. Come and see that I am here. Transeamus usque Bethlehem, the Latin Bible says. Let us go there! Let us surpass ourselves! Let us journey towards God in all sorts of ways: along our interior path towards him, but also along very concrete paths the Liturgy of the Church, the service of our neighbour, in whom Christ awaits us.

The Child-God Asks for Our Love

Let us once again listen directly to the Gospel. The shepherds tell one another the reason why they are setting off: "Let us see this thing that has happened." Literally the Greek text says: "Let us see this Word that has occurred there." Yes indeed, such is the radical newness of this night: the Word can be seen. For it has become flesh. The God of whom no image may be made because any image would only diminish, or rather distort him this God has himself become visible in the One who is his true image, as Saint Paul puts it (cf. 2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15). In the figure of Jesus Christ, in the whole of his life and ministry, in his dying and rising, we can see the Word of God and hence the mystery of the living God himself. This is what God is like. The Angel had said to the shepherds: "This will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger" (Lk 2:12; cf. 2:16). God's sign, the sign given to the shepherds and to us, is not an astonishing miracle. God's sign is his humility. God's sign is that he makes himself small; he becomes a child; he lets us touch him and he asks for our love. How we would prefer a different sign, an imposing, irresistible sign of God's power and greatness! But his sign summons us to faith and love, and thus it gives us hope: this is what God is like. He has power, he is Goodness itself. He invites us to become like him. Yes indeed, we become like God if we allow ourselves to be shaped by this sign; if we ourselves learn humility and hence true greatness; if we renounce violence and use only the weapons of truth and love. Origen, taking up one of John the Baptist's sayings, saw the essence of paganism expressed in the symbol of stones: paganism is a lack of feeling, it means a heart of stone that is incapable of loving and perceiving God's love. Origen says of the pagans: "Lacking feeling and reason, they are transformed into stones and wood" (in Lk 22:9). Christ, though, wishes to give us a heart of flesh. When we see him, the God who became a child, our hearts are opened. In the Liturgy of the holy night, God comes to us as man, so that we might become truly human. Let us listen once again to Origen: "Indeed, what use would it be to you that Christ once came in the flesh if he did not enter your soul? Let us pray that he may come to us each day, that we may be able to say: I live, yet it is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me (Gal 2:20)" (in Lk 22:3).

Transform Me, Renew Me, Change Me

Yes indeed, that is what we should pray for on this Holy Night. Lord Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, come to us! Enter within me, within my soul. Transform me. Renew me. Change me, change us all from stone and wood into living people, in whom your love is made present and the world is transformed. Amen.

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Loving greetings for a very Blessed Christmas to all the readers of Vultus Christi. May the Infant Jesus, in the arms of His Most Holy Mother, lift up the light of His Face upon you.

Vigil Mass of the Nativity of the Lord at First Vespers

Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 89: 3-4, 15-16, 26 and 28
Acts 13: 16-17, 22-25
Matthew 1:1-25

All the World Desires to Behold His Face

“The King of peace is greatly glorified, and all the world desires to behold His face” (First Antiphon of Vespers). The dominant note of this vesperal liturgy is desire. The inexpressible and inarticulate groanings of the cosmos, the desire of the everlasting hills, the hope of the patriarchs, and the promises of the prophets come to flower on the lips of the Church. She enters more deeply into the mystery of the Advent of the Lord with a heart dilated by the immensity of her desire. The Church, in whom all the peoples of the earth are gathered, beholds the glory of God shining in the human face of His Christ (2 Cor 4:6). Transfixed, she drinks deeply from the human eyes of God as from great pools of living water.

The Advent of the Word

The King of peace has come to strengthen the bars of her gates, to bless
the children within her, to establish peace in her borders, to feed her with
finest wheat (Ps 147:2-3). The Word is sent forth from the silence of the
Father (Ps 147:4); running swiftly He comes, leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills (Ct 2:8), melting all that is frozen, causing
streams to flow at the breath of His mouth (Ps 147:11-12).

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Fire Upon the Earth

In this First Mass of Christmas, the Church reads one of her Advent prophet’s most lyrical and jubilant pages. Isaiah stands irrepressible upon the heights, guiding us through the portals of First Vespers into the mystery of the holy night. “For Zions’s sake, I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest” (Is 62:1). Now her vindication goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch. Zion is vindicated. The Church is vindicated. All who have waited, and believed, and wept, and hoped against hope are vindicated. Healing comes as a burning torch to purify, to cleanse, to ignite a fire upon the earth, and to warm hearts long grown cold. “I have come,” the Child of Bethlehem says, “to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled” (Lk 12:49).

My Delight

While we are yet on the threshold of our Vigil, the mouth of the Lord calls us by a litany of new names, names full of promise and of wonder. “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, a royal diadem in the hand of your God” (Is 62:3). We thought of ourselves as “Forsaken” and “Desolate” (Is 62:4). “My Delight” is the name He gives us, and He calls us “Married” (Is 62:4). We have come to the feast prepared to find our joy in Him and He, astounding us, declares His joy over us even as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride (Is 52:5).

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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