Homilies: 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).

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).

A Night As Bright As the Day

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The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Mass During the Night

Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7
Psalm 95: 1-2, 2-3, 11-12, 13
Titus 2: 11-14
Luke 2:10-11

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shined” (Is 9:2).
Following the ancient tradition of the Church
you prepared your encounter with the Light
by means of a night vigil of psalmody and reading.
The Word heard became the Word held;
the Word held became the Word offered;
and the Word offered becomes, in this nocturnal Eucharist,
a Light, no longer beheld from without, but blazing within.
“Did not our hearts burn within us
while he talked to us on the road?” (Lk 24:32).

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Cistercians and Franciscans — and yes, Carmelites too! — have this in common: a tender love for the mystery of the Word made flesh and a holy delight in the little Child of Bethlehem. Some of the most beautiful Christ–masses of my life were spent at Bethlehem Monastery of the Poor Clares, first in Newport News Virginia and then in Barhamsville. Imagine my delight when I found Bernardino Fasolo's painting (1526) of the Nativity depicting Our Lady and Saint Joseph, Saint Elizabeth and Saint Zechariah, Saint John the Baptist (the little boy kneeling with folded hands), Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Francis holding the cross, and Saint Clare holding the monstrance! All eyes are fixed on the Bambino Gesù. And He, with His little hand grasps His cousin's staff, fashioned in the form of the cross, as if to say: "For this, have I come: to be the Lamb of God."

Vesperal Mass of the Vigil of the Nativity of the Lord

Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 88: 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). This evening, 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 all 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). Tranfixed, she drinks deeply from the human eyes of God as from great pools of living water.

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).

Fire Upon the Earth

In this Vesperal Mass of the great vigil, 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,” He says, “to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled” (Lk 12:49).

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Today is Our Lady’s Sunday in Advent.
Pope Paul VI, influenced, no doubt, by the ancient practice
of the venerable Church of Milan,
desired that the Fourth Sunday of Advent
should become a veritable festival of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
He wanted to envelop the Christmas mystery
in the gentle presence of the Virgin Mother.

By designating the Fourth Sunday of Advent our Lady’s Sunday
and by restoring to January 1st
its ancient title of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God,
Pope Paul VI sought to give us the Infant Christ, the Redeemer of the world,
circled round by the tenderness of the Blessed Virgin.

The liturgy celebrates the Virgin Mother
before Christmas Day and again eight days after it.
This is the Church’s way of teaching us
that the Blessed Virgin Mary is indispensable to every advent of Christ.
If you would welcome Christ, welcome Mary.
If you would receive Christ, seek Mary.
If you would know Christ, know Mary.
If you would love Christ, love Mary.

The Blessed Virgin is present in every part of today’s Mass.
The Introit, for example, is her song before it is ours.
It can only be ours because it was first hers.
“Send down dew from above, you heavens,
and let the skies pour down upon us the rain we long for, Him, the Just One:
may He, the Saviour, spring from the closed womb of the earth” (Is 45:8).
There is no prayer that does not begin
in an intense longing for the dew from above.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for holiness;
they shall have their fill” (Mt 5:6).

The Collect is familiar and worn like a thing much loved
because it is the prayer that, three times each day,
concludes the Little Office of the Incarnation
that we call the Angelus.
It sums up the whole economy of our salvation:
the message of an angel to the Virgin;
the immensity of her “Yes”;
the bitter Passion and the Blood outpoured;
the Cross, the Tomb, and the triumph of the Prince of Life.
Of all these mysteries, Mary is the mystical portress
and the keeper of the gate.
This is why the saints teach that love for Mary
is a sure sign of predestination.
Understand this aphorism as the saints did:
one who loves Mary
is destined to imitate her “Yes”
and to follow her through the passion and cross of her Son
into the glory of His resurrection.

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Almighty and ever-living God,
seeing that the birth of Thy Son according to the flesh
is drawing near,
we beseech Thee that Thy Word
may grant mercy to us, Thy unworthy servants,
for He deigned to become flesh of the Virgin Mary
and to dwell among us.

The Realism of the Liturgy

You may have noticed that the Collects of Advent, as well as the Prayers Over the Offerings and the Postcommunions, make frequent mention of sin. Like heavy chains bound to our feet, sin impedes our going forward to meet the Lord. This is the realism of the liturgy. The Church never pretends that we are not engaged at every moment in spiritual combat. The joy of Advent is not about denying the things that keep us from God; it is the acknowledgement of those things and, then, their surrender to the all-powerful mercy of the Word made flesh.

Saved for Joy

Today’s Collect looks to tomorrow and the next day.

Almighty and ever-living God,
seeing that the birth of Thy Son according to the flesh is drawing near. . . .

The words of this first phrase of the Collect are those that we will hear solemnly proclaimed tomorrow in the Martyrology: Nativitas Domini nostri Iesu Christi secundum carnem, “the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.” It is the custom in some Benedictine monasteries for the Cantor to don a rose-coloured cope to sing the Announcement of Christmas, the dawn of our salvation.

Our liberation from sin is a liberation for joy. Christ comes not only to save us from sin, but also to save us for joy. “I will not leave you desolate,” says the Lord, “I will come to you” (Jn 14:18); and again, “Ask and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (Jn 16:24).

The Word Became Flesh

Here is the petition of today’s Collect:

We beseech Thee that Thy Word may grant mercy to us, Thy unworthy servants,
for He deigned to become flesh of the Virgin Mary and to dwell among us.

The Church speaks of the Word; she uses the language of the sublime Prologue of Saint John, the very Gospel that we will hear at the Mass of Christmas Day. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was toward God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14).

23 December, O EMMANUEL

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Murillo's painting of the Infant Christ distributing bread to pilgrims is an invitation to consider the mystery of the Eucharist, God–With–Us, the Child of Bethlehem, the House of Bread. An Angel assists the Infant Christ. Behind Him (not visible in this detail) is His Mother, her body forming a kind of Eucharistic throne, a variation on the Sedes Sapientiae motif. Perhaps the sequence of the Mass of Corpus Christi provided a subtext for this painting:

Ecce, panis Angelorum,
Factus cibus viatorum:
Vere panis filiorum.

Behold, the Bread of Angels sent
For pilgrims in their banishment,
The Bread for God's true children meant.

O Emmanuel (Is 7:14; 8:8),
our King and Lawgiver (Is 33:22),
the expectation of the nations and their Saviour (Gen 49:10):
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

The Last of the O Antiphons

On December 23rd we come today to the last of the Great O Antiphons. We are accustomed to seven, but, in other times and places, and even now, there are nine or even as many as twelve.

O Virgo Virginum

O Virgo Virginum, the last of the Great O Antiphons in the old English liturgy of Sarum , occurs on December 23rd. Its structure is quite different from all the other Great O Antiphons. The first part is a question addressed to the Virgin Mary; in the second part she replies with another question, and then, gives her answer.

“O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?
For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after.
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me?
That which ye behold is a divine mystery.”

It is touching that the Anglican Church, despite all the vicissitudes of her history, remains attached to this lovely Great O addressed to Our Lady.

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O Emmanuel

In today’s Roman liturgy the O Antiphon is, like the six that preceded it, addressed to our Lord Jesus Christ. It seems to me that, with each succeeding day, the O of our invocation, and the Veni of our supplication has grown more confident, more intense and, in a sense, more urgent.

Afraid Never Again

Mother Marie des Douleurs, writing in 1964, offers us a somewhat anguished meditation on today’s Great O. It appears to come out of an experience of weakness, fear, and uncertainty. Some would dismiss it as deeply pessimistic and too gloomy for Advent. I sense something else in it: the prayer of woman wrestling with her inner demons, as we all do, and confident nonetheless in the mystery of God-with-us. This is what she wrote:

Preaching on the Propers — Again

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The Bambino clasping His Mamma's hand is by Michelangelo. Already, I see in this something of the Pietà.

December 22

1 Samuel 1:24-28
1 Samuel 2:1, 4-5, 6-7, 8abcd
Luke 1:46-56

Preaching on the Propers

Some of you have asked why I so often preach on the Collect of the Mass. There are several reasons for this. First, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal recommends that priests preach not only on the Gospel of the day or on the other readings, but also on the Proper and Ordinary of the Mass, that is, on the other parts of the Mass, both those that change according to the season and day, and those common to every celebration.

Devotion to the Collect

The Collect of the Mass is a privileged element of the sacred liturgy. It instructs us in the mysteries of our faith and articulates the prayer of the whole Church, a prayer that that is the fruit of the Word of God heard (lectio) and repeated in antiphons and responsories (meditatio). In the great seasons of the Church Year and on feasts, the same Collect is repeated at Mass and at all the Hours of the Divine Office, except Compline. This repetition of the Collect is intended to anchor it our hearts. Dom Guéranger, the restorer of Benedictine life in nineteenth France, once told a novice bewildered by the vast variety of pious devotions, that a single one was indispensable and sufficient: devotion to the Collect of the day.

An Inspired Prayer

The Collect of the day is a distillation of the Church’s own reflection on the Word of God. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Collect rises in the soul of the Church. At Mass and the Divine Office, it comes to flower on the lips of her children to bear fruit in their lives.

Unspeakable Groanings

None of us know how to pray rightly. Often in our prayer we ask for things according to our own dim lights. We ask God for the things we think we need or for the things we think we want. But our needing and our wanting are, more often than not, obscure and flawed. This is the “infirmity” of our prayer. Saint Paul says: “The Spirit also helpeth our infirmity. For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings. And he that searcheth the hearts, knoweth what the Spirit desireth; because he asketh for the saints according to God” (Rom 8:26-27). The Collect articulates for us the unspeakable groanings of the Spirit. When we pray the Collect, making it our own, we are asking according to God, and not according to our own dim and limited perceptions.

Ave, gratia plena

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Deus, aeterna maestas. cuius ineffabile Verbum,
Angelo nuntiante, Virgo immaculata suscepit,
et, domus divinitatis effecta, Sanctus Spiritus luce repletur,
quaesumus, ut nos, eius exemplo,
voluntati tuae humiliter adhaerere valeamus.

O God, Eternal Majesty,
at the announcement of the angel,
the immaculate Virgin received your ineffable Word within herself
and, having become the dwelling of the divinity,
was filled with the light of the Holy Spirit;
we beseech you, that following her example,
we may be able to adhere humbly to your will.

If we are to profit fully from today’s Collect, we have to listen to it with the ears of the heart and look closely at the images it sets before us. In addition to the Father and the Son evoked in every Collect, in today’s there are the same three persons present in Saint Luke’s account of the Annunciation: the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit, and the Archangel Gabriel.

Aeterna maiestas

Today’s prayer addresses God, as Eternal Majesty. This form of divine address is very rare in the liturgy. Why does the Church use it in her prayer today? It sets the opening of the prayer in the heights of heaven. One can only think of Isaiah’s vision in the temple: “In the year that King Ozias died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and elevated: and his train filled the temple” (Is 6:1).

The painting of the Annunciation by the Florentine Dominican Fra Bartolomeo (1472–1517), a convert of Savonarola, shows us the Father of Eternal Majesty blessing with His right hand while, with the other, He sends the Holy Spirit, under the form of a dove, into the house of the Virgin at Nazareth.

There can be nothing brashly familiar in our approach to the mystery. We begin the Collect today in holy amazement, in the fear of God that is a mixture of face-in-the-dust adoration and speechless awe. We describe God as we experience him: aeterna maiestas, eternal majesty. The eternal majesty of God in heaven penetrates the little house of Nazareth to reach the Virgin, ravishing in her humility.

Quid ergo faciemus?

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Third Sunday of Advent C

Luke 3:10-18
Philippians 4:4-7
Isaiah 12:2-6 (Responsorial Psalm)
Zephaniah 3:14-18

A Prophet All Ablaze

Today’s gospel begins rather abruptly. John the Baptist has been preaching a message of repentance to the multitudes. He is no ordinary preacher. John burns; he is all aflame with the fire of the Word of God. He aims his words like blazing arrows to pierce the most hardened hearts. John is not intimidated by his hearers. He is not diplomatic. The Baptist is not impressed by the rich and the powerful. He doesn’t seek to please the influential, nor to flatter the pious. He doesn’t court the favour of the establishment.

The Sword of the Word

When it comes to sin, John is absolutely lucid; he knows well just how twisted and hardened the human heart can become. Jeremiah had said it before him: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). John knows only one remedy for the corruption and deceit of the human heart: the Word of God, “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).

The Malignant Growths of Sin

To be wounded by the Word is the first stage of healing. Not only is the Word blazing arrow and two-edged sword; it is a scalpel as well. The Word is the scalpel by which the Holy Spirit removes from our hearts the malignant growths of sin.

There are some who come to the sacred liturgy or go to lectio divina armed against the Word, wearing helmets and clutching shields. It is, in fact, possible to go through the motions of worship clothed in an invisible armour protected by the hard shells of routine piety, self-sufficiency, and habitual inattention to the proclamation of the Word. It is even possible to listen to the Word of God, holding all the while a shield in front of our hearts, lest we be struck by the Word, and wounded.

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Second Saturday of Advent

Sirach 48:1-4, 9-11
Psalm 79: 80:2ac and 3b, 15-16, 18-19
Matthew 17:9a, 10-13

The Splendour of Your Glory in the Face of Christ

Almighty God,
let the splendour of your glory, we pray,
rise like the dayspring in our hearts
to dispel every darkness of the night;
that the advent of your only-begotten Son,
may reveal us to be children of the light.

Today’s collect is the fruit of a long contemplation of the light that shines from the Scriptures: another example of the oratio — prayer — that is the fruit of lectio —hearing the Word — and of meditatio — repeating it. The splendour of the Father’s glory that rises like the dawn in our hearts is Christ, “the reflection of the glory of God” (Heb 1:3). “It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the Face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).

O Dayspring

The Jews of old expected the advent of the Messiah in the radiance of a rising sun. Isaiah cries, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Is 60:1). Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist blesses God, saying, “The Orient shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death” (Lk 1:78-79). The Church, on December 21st, will sing, “O Dayspring, brightness of eternal Light and Sun of Justice: come and enlighten them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

The Light of Bethlehem

Christ’s first advent in the cave of Bethlehem, marked by the rising of a star in the night, was a mystery of light. “In Him was life,” says Saint John, “and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:4-5).

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Not a Caravaggio, although it could be taken for one! This painting of Saint John the Baptist is by the Spaniard Bartolomé González y Serrano (1564–1627). The Baptist looks pensive, perhaps even discouraged. He came, "neither eating nor drinking", and they said, "He hath a devil" (Mt 11:18). Does the Forerunner see already that the Lamb of God, the Bridegroom Himself, will be treated dismissively as "a glutton and wine drinker, a friend of publicans and sinners" (Mt 11:19)?

Friday of the Second Week of Advent

Isaiah 48:17-19
Psalm 1: 1-2, 3, 4, 6
Matthew 11:16-19a

The Utmost Vigilance

The Collect given us by the Church today makes us ask for the grace of the utmost vigilance. Cum summa vigilantia, says the text. “Grant, we beseech you, Almighty God, that Your people may await the advent of Your Only-begotten Son with the utmost vigilance.” The prayer goes on to make reference to the teaching of Our Lord in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins: “ . . . so that as He Himself, the Author of our salvation taught us, we may keep watch with lamps burning, and go forth to meet Him when He comes.” “At midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him’” (Mt 25:6). A heart held in readiness for the Bridegroom listens for the faintest sound of His footsteps falling in the night. There are times when prayer is nothing more than this: a waiting in the night, a straining to listen, a readiness to respond to the first sign of His advent.

The Listening Which Changes Life

The prayer of vigilance obliges one to listen closely to the Word, and listening leads to change. “Thus saith the Lord thy redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: I am the Lord thy God that teach thee profitable things, that govern thee in the way that thou walkest” (Is 48:17). Recall what Pope John Paul II wrote eleven years ago in Orientale Lumen: “When a person is touched by the Word obedience is born, that is, the listening which changes life” (OL, art. 10). I think that in writing this, Pope John Paul II gave us the most profound definition of monastic obedience ever formulated.

The Refusal to Listen

If one’s life is not changing, might it not be because one is not listening? If one is not listening, might it not be because one refuses to be touched by the Word? We must, all of us, be vigilant lest we grow hardened in an attitude of resistance to the listening which changes life. It is paradoxical that those who, two generations ago, were the most eager to embrace radical changes in the Church are the very ones who today are the most resistant to reform. In today’s Gospel, Our Lord reproaches those who, having ears, refuse to listen: “But whereunto shall I esteem this generation to be like? It is like to children sitting in the market place. Who crying to their companions say: We have piped to you, and you have not danced: we have lamented, and you have not mourned” (Mt 11:16–17).

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Almighty God who command us to prepare
the way for Christ the Lord,
mercifully grant that we may not grow weary in our infirmities
as we wait for the consoling presence of the heavenly Physician.

No Quietism

Advent is about waiting, but in this waiting there is nothing passive, nothing of the quietism that would have one sit like an inert lump without passion, energy, or desire. Advent has been called the Lent of Winter, and with good reason. The very qualities that characterize the Lent of Spring, should characterize Advent. Does not Saint Benedict say that “a monk’s life ought at all times to bear a Lenten character” (RB 49:1)? What is the essence of this Lenten character? Saint Benedict, after inviting us to a spontaneous generosity in prayer, in self-denial, and in silence, sums it all up by saying, “and so with the joy of spiritual desire, look forward to holy Pascha” (RB 49:7). The “joy of spiritual desire” is the key to “preparing the way of the Lord” (Is 40:3).

Roman Realism

The second part of today’s Collect is another example of the realism and confidence found everywhere in the Roman liturgy: “mercifully grant that we may not grow weary in our infirmities as we wait for the consoling presence of the heavenly Physician.” The prayer does not deny that we are beset with infirmities. It makes us admit our weakness. It does not minimize the temptation we all have to weariness, to the classic monastic complaint of accedia: a loss of energy, a kind of “throwing in the towel,” a giving in to the dullness and inertia of routine.

Christ the Physician

We are waiting for the “consoling presence of the heavenly Physician.” Christ, the Physician of our souls and bodies is sent to minister to us in our infirmity. This is the thrilling message of the first reading: “It is he that giveth strength to the weary, and increaseth force and might to them that are not. Youths shall faint, and labour, and young men shall fall by infirmity. But they that hope in the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall take wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Is 40:29-31). We are waiting for the consoling presence of Him who says, “Come to Me, all you that labour, and are burdened, and I will refresh you” (Mt 11:28).

The “heavenly Physician” of the Collect comes to us today in the mystery of His Eucharistic Advent: the sacrament of our healing, the remedy for every infirmity. Approach then the Holy Mysteries with Saint Benedict’s, “joy of spiritual desire” (RB 49:7). The heavenly Physician “stands at the door and knocks” (Rev 3:20).

Gaudens gaudebo in Domino

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December 8
The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Genesis 3:9-15, 20
Psalm 97: 1, 2-3ab, 3cdd-4
Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12
Luke 1:26-38

A Song From the Womb

“Rejoicing, I will rejoice in the Lord, and my soul shall be joyful in my God. He has clothed me with the garment of salvation, and with the robe of justice He has wrapped me about, as a bride adorned with her jewels” (Is 61:10). A song intoned from the womb! The Church takes the jubilant words of the prophet Isaiah and places them in the mouth of the Immaculate Conception, the Child full of grace just conceived in the womb of Saint Anne.

Prelude to the Magnificat

Gaudens, gaudebo in Domino.” “Rejoicing, I will rejoice in the Lord.” If you would understand the text, you must sing it as the Church sings it today. The exegesis of the text is in its ravishing third mode melody; it soars pure as crystal in a kind of ecstatic cry of undiluted joy in God.

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Mary herself intones the first chant of the Mass today: a kind of prelude to her Magnificat. Already — just conceived — the Child Mary begins to sing, and with her the whole Church. On no other feast of the year does the liturgy allow the Virgin Mary to open the Mass by singing in the first person singular. “Rejoicing, I will rejoice” (Is 61:10). Mary’s message, from the first instant of her Immaculate Conception, is one of joy in God.

The Tree

The joy of the Immaculate Conception springs from the mystery of the Cross. The Collect says that Mary was “preserved from all stain” in foresight of the death of Christ on the Cross. Here enters the figure of the tree glimpsed in today’s First Lesson from Genesis. The tree of Eve’s mourning and weeping becomes for Mary the tree of “an unutterable and exalted joy” (1 P 1:8). Mary is the first to taste of the sweet fruit of the Tree of Life; Mary is the first to sing of the joy of the Cross. There is an extraordinary medieval painting that shows the Tree of Life with Mary on one side and Eve on the other. Eve, completely naked, is giving the bitter fruit of her sin to her own communicants in evil. From her side of the tree a skull looks out, grimacing in death. On the other side of the tree is Mary, crowned and clothed in grace and beauty. She takes pure white hosts from among the branches of the tree and, like a priest distributing Holy Communion, places them in the mouths of her own communicants in eternal life. In the branches of Mary’s side of the tree there is a crucifix. The Face of the Crucified is turned toward those who partake of the fruit of the Cross.

On Saint Nicholas Day

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Wednesday of the First Week of Advent
December 6
Commemoration of Saint Nicholas, Bishop

Isaiah 25:6–10a
Psalm 22:1–2, 3–4, 5, 6 (R. 6cd)
Matthew 15:29–37

The Eucharist

The liturgy of the Wednesday of the First Week of Advent is entirely illumined by the mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist. Even before the readings, the Church alludes to the mystery of the Eucharist in the Collect. We pray that, “at the coming of Christ . . . we may be found worthy of the banquet of eternal life, and ready to receive the food of heaven from His hand.” This refers not only to the “hidden manna” (Ap 2:17) of heaven, but also to the Bread of Life given us from the altar by the hand of the priest who, in feeding us, is an icon of Christ “nourishing and cherishing” (Eph 5:29) His Body the Church.

Isaiah’s Prophecy

In the First Lesson Isaiah prophesies that the day will come when God Himself will be “a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress; a refuge from the whirlwind, a shadow from the heat” (Is 25:4). And on that day “the Lord of hosts shall make unto all people . . . a feast of fat things, a feast of wine” (Is 25:6). In the Responsorial Psalm, the Lord “prepares a table” (Ps 22:5), opening to us the hospitality of His house “unto length of days” (Ps 22:6).

And A Little Child Shall Lead Them

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Tuesday of the First Week of Advent

Isaiah 11:1–10
Psalm 71:1–2, 7–8, 12–13, 17 (R. 7)
Luke 10:21–24

Grace Upon Grace

Saint John, in his Prologue, declares us that we have all received of the fullness of the Word made flesh, “and grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16). The prophet Isaiah tells us today just what this fullness of grace is: “And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him: the spirit of wisdom, and of understanding, the spirit of counsel, and of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge, and of godliness. And He shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord” (Is 11:2–3). There are seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, seven graces, or seven “spirits” as the prophet calls them. The number seven, as you know, signifies a superabundant fullness. It is of this fullness that “we have all received, and grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16).

The Same Spirit

All who belong to Christ are given a share in the Spirit of Christ. As the psalmist says, the anointing of the Head runs down upon the beard, the beard of Aaron, and reaches even to the hem of his garment (cf. Ps 132:2). Saint Paul says, “Now there are diversities of graces, but the same Spirit; and there are diversities of ministries, but the same Lord; and there are diversities of operations, but the same God, who worketh all in all. And the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man unto profit. To one indeed, by the Spirit, is given the word of wisdom: and to another, the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit; to another, faith in the same Spirit; to another the grace of healing . . . but all of these things one and the same Spirit worketh, dividing to every one according as He will” (1 Cor 12:4–11).

The Order of Holiness

Isaiah goes on to describe the effects of this anointing with the Spirit of the Lord. A new order appears: one characterized by justice, by equity for the meek of the earth, and by fidelity. In a word, the new order is the order of holiness: participation in the very life of God. What are the signs of this new order? “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb: and the leopard shall lie down with the kid: the calf and the lion, and the sheep shall abide together” (Is 11:6). (This is an apt description of most monasteries.)

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First Tuesday of Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 71: 1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17
Luke 10:21-24

The photograph is of the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the altar of the church of Bethlehem Monastery of the Poor Clares in Barhamsville, Virginia.

The Advent Collects

The Collects of the Advent liturgy merit our close attention. Crafted under the influence of the Holy Spirit, they are a distillation of life-giving doctrine. Our own personal prayer derives from the prayer of the Church and flows back into it.

What the Church asks for all her children in the Collect of the Mass and Divine Office, I must learn to ask for myself and for those recommended to my prayer. It is through the sacred liturgy and, in a particular way, through the daily Collect, that the Holy Spirit “helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom 8:26).

Today’s Prayer

Today’s Collect comes from the rotulus or scroll of Ravenna and, according to some scholars, could date from as early as the fifth century:

Lord God,
be gracious to our supplications
and in tribulation grant us, we pray,
the help of your strong and tender love;
that being consoled by the presence of your Son who is to come,
we may be untainted, even now, by the contagion of our old ways.

The Collect makes two requests of God. The first is, “be gracious to our supplications and in tribulation, grant us we pray the help of your pietas, your strong, fatherly love.” The tone of the prayer is humble and full of confidence. We ask God to be gracious to our supplications. Supplication comes from the Latin verb supplico, meaning to kneel down or to bend low. We approach God humbly, making ourselves close to the dust of the earth from which we were created (cf. Gen 2:7).

Pietatis Auxilium

The first request is for the help of God’s pietas, his strong, faithful, fatherly devotedness, in our tribulation. Tribulation means affliction, oppression, distress, or trouble. No one of us is entirely free from tribulation. Each of us has his troubles or, as Julien Green says, “each man has his night.” Today’s Collect teaches us that in the midst of trouble we can and must kneel in the dust, beseeching God to grant us his pietatis auxilium, the help of his fatherly love.

Domine, non sum dignus

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Monday of the First Week of Advent

Isaiah 2:1–5
Psalm 121:1–2, 3–4ab, 4cd–5, 6–7, 8–9
Matthew 8:5–11

Saints in Advent

We celebrate the Holy Mysteries today in the company of two saints, both of them lights from the East: Saint Barbara, Virgin and Martyr, and Saint John Damascene, Priest and Doctor of the Church. Saint Barbara, according to the legend, was enclosed in a tower (some accounts say it was a bathhouse) by her pagan father. There were two windows in this improvised prison cell.

Three Windows

Taking advantage of her father's temporary absence, Barbara instructed the servants to make a third window in honour of the Most Holy Trinity. The light poured into Barbara's cell from three windows; her soul, meanwhile, was flooded by what Saint Benedict calls "the deifying light" of the Three Divine Persons. Thus was Saint Barbara found, as today's Collect puts it, "vigilant in prayer and joyful in singing His praises," at the hour of her martyrdom.

God is Light

In this, Saint Barbara speaks to all who feel hemmed in and imprisoned by the circumstances of life. To all who feel shut in and imprisoned, to all who live behind walls, Saint Barbara says, "Lift your eyes to the light of the Most Holy Trinity. Let the glorious radiance of the Three Divine Persons shine in your solitude." Her message is that of Saint Paul who says, "Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. For you are dead; and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ shall appear, who is your life, then you shall appear with Him in glory" (Col 3:2–4). Her message is that of the Apostle John: "God is light, and in Him there is no darkness" (1 Jn 1:5).

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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