Saints: December 2012 Archives

Saint John, Sir Ninian Cooper, Downside.jpg

Saint John by Sir Ninian Comper, Lady Chapel of Downside Abbey Church. Thanks to the ever gracious Father Lawrence, O.P. for the use of his photo.

The Logic of the Liturgy

The liturgy has a marvelous logic all its own. On this third day of the Christmas octave, Mother Church gives us a Resurrection Gospel, taken from the very last chapter of Saint John! While we are yet at the manger, the liturgy compels us to gaze into the face of the risen Christ! John, the disciple whom Jesus loved is there before us. Indeed, it was he who arrived first at the sepulchre, preceding the Prince of the Apostles. Saint John's virginal love gave wings to his feet. "Draw me in thy footsteps," says the bride of the Canticle, "let us run" (Ct 1:4). John is the first of those who set out in search of the Body of Christ; arriving even before Peter, and yet deferring to him.

Peter and John

The Petrine authority in the Church is firmly established by Christ on the solid rock of Peter; it continues through the successors of Peter: teaching, reproving, testing, correcting, forgiving and calling together in unity. The Johannine authority in the Church is not hierarchical, but belongs, rather, to the order of graces freely given for the upbuilding of the Body of Christ; it 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 Preface of Christmas puts it.

Those Who Dwell in the Cleft of the Rock

All through history the spiritual offspring of the Beloved Disciple have, like so many doves, found refuge in the cleft of the rock, the pierced Heart of Jesus. They are found everywhere in the Church and are needed everywhere in the Church; very often they are desert-dwellers, lovers of solitude, hidden away behind enclosure walls that are but the symbol of a deeper desire: "to be hidden with Christ in God" (Col 3:3). But they are found as well in all sorts of other places: in city apartments and in fashionable suburbs, in conditions of extreme poverty and in places of great suffering. When they speak, their word is uttered out of silence and returns to the silence whence its springs. More often than not they sing, for words alone are poor and inadequate; song, at least, lifts words above themselves, breaks them open and allows their fragrance to fill the whole house (cf. Jn 12:3).

The Authority Born of Adoration

The Johannine authority of the Church comes to birth in adoration: in the contemplation of Jesus' Holy Face, shining with the glory of the Father in the bright cloud of the Holy Spirit on Mount Tabor. It is nourished by the Bread of Life containing in itself all sweetness. Its place of preference is close to the altar, in the radiance of the Most Holy Sacrament. It is instructed in secret: "No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me. . . . It is written in the prophets: They will all be taught by God; everyone who has listened to the Father and learnt from him, comes to me" (Jn 6:44-45).

With Mary

The Johannine authority is one of love; it flows out of the Heart of Jesus into the heart and mind of whosoever rests his head upon Jesus' breast. It is purified in Gethsemani where it enters into a bloody struggle with the powers of darkness and of sin. It is steadfast on Calvary where, opening its mouth it inhales the gift of the Spirit, handed over in the breath of the Bridegroom, and where raising its eyes to the Pierced One it contemplates a stream of blood and of water. The Johannine authority of the Church is inseparable from the Virgin Mother, has taken her into its home, lives day by day and hour by hour in her intimacy, learning from her things long cherished in the silence of her Immaculate Heart.

Friends of the Lamb

Finally, the descendants of John -- friends of the Lamb -- see beyond what is now into a new heaven and a new earth where God will wipe away all tears, where there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness or pain (Ap 21:3-4). On their faces shines already the radiant glory of God and the Lamb himself is their lighted torch. They make their own the cry of the Spirit and of the Bride: "Come! Amen. Come Lord Jesus!"

Disciples of John

By the infinite mercy of the Word made flesh, may we who want to listen to Peter and defer to him in all things, be numbered among the least disciples of John. Amen.

Wreathe the Door of Thy Heart

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1226Stephen Angelico.jpg

The painting is by Blessed Fra Angelico (1400-1455). Saint Peter is ordaining Stephen to the diaconate while Saint John the Beloved (whose feast we will keep tomorrow), holding his Gospel, looks on. The composition is remarkable: the three heads of Peter, John and Stephen form a triangle, a symbol of communion in the Three Divine Persons. Peter is handing over the chalice and paten; they are very large. Fra Angelico makes the Most Holy Eucharist central; he paints what Saint Thomas Aquinas taught, i.e. that the unity of the Church is constituted and held together by participation in the adorable Body and Blood of Christ.

December 26
Saint Stephen the Protomartyr

The Holy Spirit at Christmas

The liturgy of Christmas, while drawing our gaze to the Son, the Word made flesh, in no way obscures or minimizes the presence and the work of the Holy Spirit. Quite by chance, I came upon this astonishing text of Saint Ephrem the Syrian: "At this feast of the Nativity let each person wreathe the door of his heart so that the Holy Spirit may delight in that door, enter in and make there his dwelling; then by the Spirit we will be made holy."

Fear Not, For Thou Hast Found Grace With God

Already on the First Sunday of Advent, we sang in the Benedictus Antiphon, "The Holy Spirit will come upon thee, O Mary. Do not be afraid." And on the Second Saturday of Advent, Blessed Isaac of Stella explained that "what is said in the particular case of the Virgin Mother Mary, is rightly understood of the Virgin Mother Church universally (Sermon 51). Today's feast of Saint Stephen is the liturgy's way of repeating now to the Virgin Mother Church the mysterious words of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mother Mary: "Fear not, for thou hast found grace with God.' (Lk 1:30).

Grace and Power

It is remarkable that Saint Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, describes Saint Stephen in today's First Reading as "full of grace and power" (Ac 6:8). The phrase has a distinctively Marian resonance. To Mary, the "highly-favoured" of God (Lk 1:28), the "full of grace," the angel Gabriel says: "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee" (Lk 1:35). The words addressed to the Virgin Mary in a particular way hold universal import for the Church.

On this second day of Christmas, Stephen, "full of grace and power"(Ac 6:8) is the radiant icon of the Church indwelt and overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. Without leaving Mary and the Infant Christ, we pass to Stephen and the Infant Christ, to Stephen and the Infant Church.

The Spirit of Truth

Saint Luke tells us that those who disputed Stephen "could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke" (Ac 6:10). Stephen of the growing Church, like Jesus at the age of twelve (Lk 2:42) opens his mouth in the midst of the people, the elders, and the scribes, and his utterance is evidence of the Holy Spirit sent to the Church in fulfillment of Jesus' promises. "When the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of Truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me" (Jn 15:26). Saint Matthew, in today's Gospel expresses the same reality: "Do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you" (Mt 10:19-20).

Full of the Spirit, Stephen Gazed into Heaven

We generally interpret this promise of Our Lord as having to do with the witness given by those who are delivered up to the enemies of His name and persecuted for the sake of the Gospel, and this is indeed the first meaning of the text, but the use of the text in this liturgy of Saint Stephen suggests yet another meaning to us, one that is, at a first glance, perhaps less apparent. Saint Luke clarifies his initial description of Stephen as "full of grace and power" (Ac 6:8) by making it explicit in his description of Stephen's martyrdom: "But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God" (Ac 7:54).

"Full of grace and power" is synonymous with "full of the Holy Spirit." The effects of the indwelling and overshadowing of the Holy Spirit are that how we are to speak and what we are to say are given us by the Spirit of the Father in the hour of our need (Mt 10:19-20) and also that those who are "full of the Holy Spirit" gaze into heaven, see the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Ac 7:54).

The Boldness That Comes from the Holy Spirit

The first effect corresponds to Saint Paul's experience of the indwelling Holy Spirit. "The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words" (Rom 8:26). How we are to speak and what we are to say comes from the Holy Spirit not only when we are facing persecutors but also when we, gathered in Christ, are facing the Father in prayer. In both instances the Church is in need of the parrhesia; -- the boldness -- that comes from the Spirit.

Tu Solus Sanctus

In her prayer, the Church indwelt and overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, the Church "full of grace and power" (Ac 6:8), knows how to speak and what to say, for the Spirit helps her in her weakness, giving her to pray as she ought. This is why in every festive liturgy the Church gazes into the heavens and seeing the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father, sings "Thou alone art the Holy One, thou alone art Lord, thou alone art the Most High: Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit: in the glory of God the Father" (Gloria). This is the second effect of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Church-at-prayer sings what, with the eyes of faith, she beholds.

The Prayer of Christ

The work of the Holy Spirit, first of all through the sacred liturgy, is to align us with the prayer of Christ to the Father, to empty us of all that is our own prayer -- narrow, subjective, constrained -- and to fill us with the utter fullness of the prayer of Christ, a prayer that is immense, universal, all-encompassing, all-powerful and always and everywhere pleasing to the Father. In his martyrdom, Saint Stephen reveals this. "As they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them'" (Ac 7:59-60).

Designedly, Saint Luke, in his account of the death of Stephen, reproduces his own account of the prayer of the dying Jesus from the cross. "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do," and "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit" (Lk 23:34 and 46). There is, however, a subtle theological difference. Whereas the dying Jesus addresses the Father, the dying Stephen addresses the living Christ, the risen and ascended Jesus whom he beholds "standing at the right hand of God"(Ac 7:55). Stephen's prayer at the hour of death is a confession of the resurrection of Christ.

Under the Overshadowing of the Holy Spirit

Poised between hearing the Word of God and going to the altar for the sacrifice, the Virgin Mother Mary and the protomartyr Saint Stephen are given us as living signs of the indwelling and overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. To us is said, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Holy Spirit will overshadow you" (Lk 1:35). To us is given, "wisdom and the Spirit" (Ac 6:10), which no earthly power or wisdom can withstand.

Body of Christ, Voice of Christ, Prayer of Christ

By our communion in the Holy Sacrifice of Christ's Body and Blood, we, like Saint Stephen, are filled with the Holy Spirit. Herein is the transforming effect of Holy Mass: we are no longer many individuals speaking many words and praying many prayers. We are, by the action of the Holy Spirit, a single Body with a single voice and signal prayer: the Body of Christ, the voice of Christ, the prayer of Christ. Amen.

Domine Jesu, suscipe spiritum meum

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The Prayer of Saint Stephen

Saint Stephen had so patterned his life after that of our Lord Jesus Christ -- Witness, Priest and Servant -- that at the hour of his death, he prayed in the same words as Jesus Crucified: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Ps 30:5). Saint Stephen, however, directs his prayer to the Lord Jesus, knowing that it will be carried by Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."

The Monk: Witness, Priest, and Servant

In the Benedictine monastic tradition, we offer ourselves, on the day of our profession, to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit with similar words: Suscipe me, Domine, secundum eloquium tuum, et vivam (Ps 118:116). We offer ourselves because we have caught a glimpse, however fleeting, of "the heavens thrown open" (Ac 7:56), and we are compelled to bear witness to it. We offer ourselves because the glory of the Father shining on the Face of Christ compels us to spend a lifetime singing his praise. We offer ourselves, because we have been served by a Lord who lowers Himself to wash our feet, and we accept a share in His suffering servanthood.

Yielding to the Holy Spirit

When we bear witness, we rely on the Spirit of Our Father to express through us the wisdom of the Crucified Son: "the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you" (Mt 10). When we celebrate the praise of the glory of the Father, we rely on the Holy Spirit to form in us the very prayer of Christ the Eternal High Priest. When we serve and when we suffer, we rely on the Holy Spirit to make us servants and oblations in the image of the Suffering Servant, and in the image of the Handmaid of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

December 22, O REX GENTIUM

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The connection between this O Antiphon and the "Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization," published five years ago (3 December 2007) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, prompted me to illustrate my reflection with pictures of missionary martyrs: Saint Jean-Gabriel Perboyre, Saint Théophane Vénard, and the Franciscan Missionaries of China.

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O Rex Gentium

O King of the Gentiles,
and the Desired of all nations(Hag 2:8),
you are the cornerstone (Is 28:16)
that binds two into one (Eph 2:14).
Come, and bring wholeness to man
whom you fashioned out of clay (Gen 2:7).

The Desired of All Nations Shall Come

Today we lift our voices to Christ, calling him King of the Gentiles and the Desired of all nations. The O Antiphon draws upon the second chapter of the prophet Haggai. With the temple still in ruins after the Babylonian exile and the project of rebuilding it daunting, Haggai speaks a word of comfort to Zerubbabel, the governor; to Joshua, the high priest; and to all the remnant of the people:

Take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozodak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit abides among you; fear not. For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations -- and here the Vulgate translation used by the liturgy differs from the Hebrew text -- and the Desired of all nations shall come; and I will fill this house with splendour, says the Lord of hosts. (Hag 2:4-8)

The antiphon uses but one phrase from this passage: the Christological title “Desired of All Nations,” but in order to grasp the significance of the title we must listen to all of Haggai’s message of comfort and hope, repeating it, praying it, and lingering over it until it inhabits us.

Truth, Beauty, Goodness

By calling the Messiah the “Desired of all nations,” Scripture and the Sacred Liturgy recognize the aspirations of every nation and culture towards the good, the true, and the beautiful, as aspirations towards Christ. In every culture there are traces of a mysterious preparation for the Gospel. Every time a human being seeks the splendour of the truth, the radiance of beauty, the purity of goodness, he seeks the Face of Christ, the “Desired of all nations.” When the missionary Church proclaims Our Lord Jesus Christ, she is proclaiming the “Desired of all nations.”

To Proclaim Jesus Christ

Without knowing His adorable Name, without having seen His Face, without having been told of His Heart opened by the soldier’s lance, the nations of the earth desire Christ and wait for Him, insofar as they desire and wait for truth, beauty, and goodness. The missionary task of Christians is to preach the Name of Jesus, to point to His Face, and to bear witness to His pierced Heart, saying, “Here is the truth, here is the goodness, here is the beauty you desire: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, risen from the dead, ascended into glory, and coming again.”

In an important “Doctrinal Note On Some Aspects of Evangelization,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reaffirmed the Church’s commitment to the missionary mandate received from Our Lord. First, the document identified the problem:

There is today . . . a growing confusion which leads many to leave the missionary command of the Lord unheard and ineffective (cf. Mt 28:19). Often it is maintained that any attempt to convince others on religious matters is a limitation of their freedom. From this perspective, it would only be legitimate to present one’s own ideas and to invite people to act according to their consciences, without aiming at their conversion to Christ and to the Catholic faith. It is enough, so they say, to help people to become more human or more faithful to their own religion; it is enough to build communities which strive for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity. Furthermore, some maintain that Christ should not be proclaimed to those who do not know him, nor should joining the Church be promoted, since it would also be possible to be saved without explicit knowledge of Christ and without formal incorporation in the Church.
That sums up the errors that are prevalent today, and explains the sad decline of missionary zeal within the Church. By calling Christ “the Desired of all nations” in today’s Great O Antiphon, the Church reaffirms her commitment to make Him known. The document goes on to say:

The Church’s commitment to evangelization can never be lacking, since according to his own promise, the presence of the Lord Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit will never be absent from her: “I am with you always, even until the end of the world” (Mt 28:20). The relativism and irenicism prevalent today in the area of religion are not valid reasons for failing to respond to the difficult, but awe-inspiring commitment which belongs to the nature of the Church herself and is indeed the Church’s “primary task”. “Caritas Christi urget nos - the love of Christ impels us” (2 Cor 5:14): the lives of innumerable Catholics bear witness to this truth.

Man Fashioned Out of the Clay of the Earth

For the petition of today’s Great O Antiphon the liturgy reaches all the way back to the second chapter of Genesis. We beg Christ to come and “save man whom he fashioned out the clay of the earth” (Gen 2:7). We ask to be refashioned, reshaped, reformed by Christ, the Word through whom all things were made. It is a bold petition: “Come, Christ, make me over, change me, reshape all that is misshapen in me.”


In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Our Lord answers our prayer. The Holy Ghost is sent in every Mass to change not only bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, but to change us, to reshape all that is misshapen, to restore to wholeness all that is fragmented, and to beauty all that has fallen into unloveliness. In this is the aim of all missionary activity: the recovery of unity not only within ourselves, but also among us, and among all the nations of the world, in the one Mystical Body of Christ. Veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti. Come -- come in the Holy Mysteries of the Altar -- “and bring wholeness to man whom you fashioned from the dust of the earth.”

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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