So Advent started and I was sort of ready.
I had one Advent candle – this nifty burn-it-down version I got in Germany last year. But I was a slacker on the wreath candles. Didn’t get them until Monday. It’s fine.
Last Saturday was the Day of Rivalry around here, as it probably was where every you live, too. Here it’s the Iron Bowl – Alabama v. Auburn, the first game of which was played in 1893 barely a mile from my house.
Given that the football fan in this house is a Gator, our interest in the game was such that we managed to tear ourselves away from it and go to Mass Saturday evening.
Can we find a seat?
The saints go marching in during Advent. Every day gives us a chance to encounter someone who embodies a different aspect of discipleship – from different eras and different lands, with varied temperaments, talents and interests. I keep saying again and again if I were designing an elementary religious education program, I’d make it liturgy and saint based. Discuss every day’s Scripture readings, continually set them in context, haul out the maps and timelines, explore art, bring out the saint(s) of the day, talk about them and their spirituality, their embodiment of the virtues, haul out those maps and historical timelines again, and there you go. Stories. Everything can hang on stories for children, stories vividly and engagingly told, and told every single day. I’ve always been so disappointed when my kids in Catholic schools have come home and I ask…did you all talk about the saint of the day today? And usually I got a nope.
They talked about the rainforest though!
Today I should like to speak about John Damascene, a personage of prime importance in the history of Byzantine Theology, a great Doctor in the history of the Universal Church. Above all he was an eyewitness of the passage from the Greek and Syrian Christian cultures shared by the Eastern part of the Byzantine Empire, to the Islamic culture, which spread through its military conquests in the territory commonly known as the Middle or Near East. John, born into a wealthy Christian family, at an early age assumed the role, perhaps already held by his father, of Treasurer of the Caliphate. Very soon, however, dissatisfied with life at court, he decided on a monastic life, and entered the monastery of Mar Saba, near Jerusalem. This was around the year 700. He never again left the monastery, but dedicated all his energy to ascesis and literary work, not disdaining a certain amount of pastoral activity, as is shown by his numerous homilies. His liturgical commemoration is on the 4 December. Pope Leo XIIIproclaimed him Doctor of the Universal Church in 1890.
In the East, his best remembered works are the three Discourses against those who calumniate the Holy Images, which were condemned after his death by the iconoclastic Council of Hieria (754). These discourses, however, were also the fundamental grounds for his rehabilitation and canonization on the part of the Orthodox Fathers summoned to the Council of Nicaea (787), the Seventh Ecumenical Council. In these texts it is possible to trace the first important theological attempts to legitimise the veneration of sacred images, relating them to the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary.
John Damascene was also among the first to distinguish, in the cult, both public and private, of the Christians, between worship (latreia), and veneration (proskynesis): the first can only be offered to God, spiritual above all else, the second, on the other hand, can make use of an image to address the one whom the image represents. Obviously the Saint can in no way be identified with the material of which the icon is composed. This distinction was immediately seen to be very important in finding an answer in Christian terms to those who considered universal and eternal the strict Old Testament prohibition against the use of cult images. This was also a matter of great debate in the Islamic world, which accepts the Jewish tradition of the total exclusion of cult images. Christians, on the other hand, in this context, have discussed the problem and found a justification for the veneration of images. John Damascene writes, “In other ages God had not been represented in images, being incorporate and faceless. But since God has now been seen in the flesh, and lived among men, I represent that part of God which is visible. I do not venerate matter, but the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to live in matter and bring about my salvation through matter. I will not cease therefore to venerate that matter through which my salvation was achieved. But I do not venerate it in absolute terms as God! How could that which, from non-existence, has been given existence, be God?… But I also venerate and respect all the rest of matter which has brought me salvation, since it is full of energy and Holy graces. Is not the wood of the Cross, three times blessed, matter?… And the ink, and the most Holy Book of the Gospels, are they not matter? The redeeming altar which dispenses the Bread of life, is it not matter?… And, before all else, are not the flesh and blood of Our Lord matter? Either we must suppress the sacred nature of all these things, or we must concede to the tradition of the Church the veneration of the images of God and that of the friends of God who are sanctified by the name they bear, and for this reason are possessed by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not, therefore, offend matter: it is not contemptible, because nothing that God has made is contemptible” (cf. Contra imaginum calumniatores, I, 16, ed. Kotter, pp. 89-90). We see that as a result of the Incarnation, matter is seen to have become divine, is seen as the habitation of God. It is a new vision of the world and of material reality. God became flesh and flesh became truly the habitation of God, whose glory shines in the human Face of Christ.
Quite fitting for Advent.
I am always looking for quotes, poems and passages to tie into the natural and liturgical seasons. I’ve mentioned this site before, and I will mention it again – It’s comprehensive. A great source for copywork. And just browsing.
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I spent an inordinate amount of time last night studying the first chapters of both Patrick Samway’s and Jay Tolson’s biographies of Walker Percy in conjunction with Google Maps and various other resources. For you see, Percy was born in Birmingham, and this is where he lived until his father committed suicide. I was aware of the general Percy landscape – homes around Five Points and in Mountain Brook, etc..but I realized that in the years I have lived here, I had never really gotten into it and studied up on things. So I did, and in the process learned that next year – May 28, 2016 – is the centenary of Percy’s birth right here at St. Vincent’s hospital in Birmingham, Alabama.
Have you ever read Michelangelo’s letters? Probably not. Me neither before recently. I dipped into them last week and was fascinated, I tell you. I do love letters (it has been a theme over the past few months, hasn’t it…Alphonsus Liguori, Francis Xavier, Catherine of Siena….) – they reveal so much and are so helpful in undoing mythmaking, especially that which we have done in our own head.
Michelangelo’s letters are absolutely lacking in revelation about his creative process – nary a word about the actual act of painting or sculpting – but they are full of business and family matters. He is mostly annoyed, most of the time, feeling taken advantage of by patrons and family (and he was), exhausted, frustrated, not to speak of those kidney stones. There is a long thread to his nephew regarding the latter’s potential marriage, which Michelangelo eventually reminding the guy that well, you know you’re not the best-looking guy in Florence, so maybe lower your expectations a little. He tells the same nephew to please get someone else to actually write his letters for him because his handwriting is so poor the strain of trying to decipher it makes Michelangelo physically ill.
Oh, and speaking of Michelangelo, this past week, I discovered this series of art videos via Khan Academy – and they are quite good. Not too long, casual, but not cute, substantive but not too heavy. Keeping to the theme:
Below is a random video from the playlist – on a church that is expressive of “Andean Baroque” and an object of restoration