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— 1 —

Happy feast of St. John of the Cross! More about him here. 

 

— 2 —

If you haven’t read Catherine Lafferty’s First Things piece on the China-Vatican agreement – do. 

The details of the deal were not disclosed, but it seems that the officially atheist Chinese state has been given some say in choosing the country’s bishops, thereby determining the type of Catholicism shared with the people. All signs indicate that the state has very definite ideas about what kind of Catholicism that should be. This policy of controlling and exploiting the Church is called sinicization. The state even has a five-year plan, produced by the CPCA, for bringing the Chinese Catholic Church into greater harmony with Chinese culture and politics. The Chinese are being served a state-controlled ersatz Catholicism with Vatican approval.  

With this deal, the Vatican has brought the Chinese Patriotic Church back into the fold. But as for the faithful underground Church, which has guarded the faith with heroic courage for decades, nothing has been said. Like the inconvenient commissars of the Soviet past, it has been erased from the narrative. 

—3–

From Catholic World Report a very good piece: “A short defense of authentic synodality.”

 Let me be as clear as I can: everything going under the name of “synod” in Rome since 1965, and as recently as this October, is not a synod as the term is used (i) throughout most of Latin Church history in the first and most of the second millennium; (ii) in most of Eastern Orthodoxy historically or today; (iii) in much of the Anglican Communion; or (iv) in the Eastern Catholic Churches such as my own.

The reason for my claim is simple: synods are not thematic conferences discussing boutique interests of some group or other. Rather, synods are business-like affairs (rarely held in full glare of the world’s media) with powers of passing legislation and electing bishops (and in some cases disciplining them). The current statutes governing these so-called Roman synods of bishops permit them to do neither….

…Since Hermaniuk’s death in 1996, and even more since 2013, I would echo his (and Burke’s) frustration that these Roman gatherings are really languorous salons whose officials write loquacious documents that often read like drafts ripped out of Hegel’s rubbish bin and then tarted up with some sophomoric sociology. As a long-time academic editor, I have watched with horror at the undisciplined length of documents coming out of Rome for many years now. How I wish curial writers would master the lesson I often convey to my students: writing is an ascetical exercise of self-denial whose patron saint is John the Baptist. You must decrease your word count while increasing your economy and felicity of expression.

In the interests of economy, let me stipulate two things: first, for those who worry that the chaos of these pseudo-synods points to some flaw in synods as such, note well that the Eastern CatholicChurches are synodically governed without the shenanigans we have sometimes seen in Rome. Eastern synods—real synods—have mechanisms to prevent their being hijacked by a handful of bishops, or manipulated behind the scenes by a primate. They seek to maintain a tension between the primate and his brothers, so that if either fails—whether by domineering, or by declining to lead—the damage is contained and nobody can go rogue.

It’s an excellent, clarifying article.

–4–

From today’s Office of Readings, appropriately enough from St. John of the Cross:

Would that men might come at last to see that it is quite impossible to reach the thicket of the riches and wisdom of God except by first entering the thicket of much suffering, in such a way that the soul finds there its consolation and desire. The soul that longs for divine wisdom chooses first, and in truth, to enter the thicket of the cross.
  Saint Paul therefore urges the Ephesians not to grow weary in the midst of tribulations, but to be steadfast and rooted and grounded in love, so that they may know with all the saints the breadth, the length, the height and the depth – to know what is beyond knowledge, the love of Christ, so as to be filled with all the fullness of God.
  The gate that gives entry into these riches of his wisdom is the cross; because it is a narrow gate, while many seek the joys that can be gained through it, it is given to few to desire to pass through it.

–5 —

The question of the weekend is going to be….will we make it? 

 

Well, I think I will – with old age, I find myself rising earlier and earlier with little pain. The younger son has indicated his determination to come as well, so we’ll see. Luckily, we live no more than 10 minutes from the Cathedral – with good traffic lights and crack-of-dawn Saturday morning traffic, it could be as little as five. Hopefully!

–6–

An astonishing obituary: Helen Klaben Kahn:

Ms. Klaben and Mr. Flores crashed in terrain that was waist-deep in snow, with temperatures as numbing as 48 degrees below zero. Without wilderness survival training, Mr. Flores adapted nonetheless. He wrapped Ms. Klaben’s injured foot in her sweaters, covered the openings of the cabin with tarpaulins and tried, without success, to fix their radio to send out a distress signal and build rabbit traps.

What little food Ms. Klaben and Mr. Flores had brought on board — a few cans of sardines, tuna fish, fruit salad and a box of Saltine crackers — was rationed and gone within 10 days. They drank water, some of it filtered through shreds of one of her dresses and boiled in an empty oil can. They ate bits of toothpaste that they squeezed from a half-filled tube — and virtually nothing else, they said.

“We’d pretend the melted snow was soup,” she told The Associated Press shortly after their rescue. “Some days it would be tomato, then beef, then all the other varieties.”

To pass the time, they read books, including a book of poems by Robert Service and a Bible. At times, Mr. Flores tried to convert Ms. Klaben from Judaism to his Mormon faith.

In early March, Mr. Flores left her for eight days — walking the treacherous ridge in snowshoes he had made of tree branches and wire — to find a clearing in the dense woods where they might be better seen from the air by bush pilots. He returned after finding a knoll about three-quarters of a mile away, and on Day 42 they set off for the spot, dragging a makeshift sled with their belongings.

–7–

Reminder: my short story. 

Also: Advent may be well under way, and so you’re probably not looking for Advent resources – but Bambinelli Sunday is coming soon, so check that out!

 

 

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Yes, it’s a thing. I’m amazed and gratified to report this: it’s a thing.

No, we didn’t start the blessing of the Bambinelli – I still am not sure who did, but it’s currently sponsored in Rome by a group called the Centro Oratori Romani. Here’s their poster for this year’s event:

Bambinelli Sunday

And somewhere along the line, Ann Engelhart heard about it, connected the practice with her own childhood appreciation of the Neapolitan presipi, particularly as experienced through the Christmas displays at the Met -and suggested a book.

More about how the book came to be. 

So here we are!

 

 

 

Every year, I try to note some of the places doing Bambinelli Sunday – here’s this year’s partial list – which starts, right here, with the Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham. The only order in this list is the order of search results. So here we go:

The Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis 

Divine Mercy, Hamden CT

St. Joseph, Mechanicsburg, PA

Liverpool Cathedral

Holy Spirit, Lubbock TX

St. Jude, Sandy Springs, GA

St. Gabriel School, Ontario, CA

Quinn Clooney Maghera Parish, Ireland

St. Francis of Assisi, St. Louis

Sacred Heart, Coronado, CO

Middleton Parish, Ireland

St. Catherine of Siena, Clearwater, FL

All Saints, Diocese of Plymouth, England

St. Senan’s, Diocese of Killaloe, Ireland

St. Augustine, Spokane

St. Bernadette, Westlake, OH

Ennis Cathedral Parish, Ireland

Nativity, Cincinnati

Killbritain Parish, Ireland

St. Edith, Livonia, MI

St. Brendan, Avalon, NJ

St. Brigid, Westbury, NY

St. Ferdinand, PA

St. Ignatius Loyola, NYC

St. Anne’s, Peterborough ON

Our Lady of Perpetual Succor, somewhere in Scotland

…And that’s all I have time to link.

Do a search for “Benedizione dei bambinelli” as well – you’ll come up with a slew. 

The point is that Advent and Christmas are about welcoming the Word of God into our lives – which means our homes. The blessing of the Bambinelli – which we bring from our homes and return there – is an embodiment of this.  As Pope Emeritus Benedict said in his 2008 prayer for the event:

God, our Father 
you so loved humankind 
that you sent us your only Son Jesus, 
born of the Virgin Mary, 
to save us and lead us back to you.

We pray that with your Blessing 
these images of Jesus, 
who is about to come among us, 
may be a sign of your presence and 
love in our homes.

Good Father, 
give your Blessing to us too, 
to our parents, to our families and 
to our friends.

Open our hearts, 
so that we may be able to 
receive Jesus in joy, 
always do what he asks 
and see him in all those 
who are in need of our love.

We ask you this in the name of Jesus, 
your beloved Son 
who comes to give the world peace.

He lives and reigns forever and ever. 
Amen.

 

 

 

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I toss the same general post up every year. I don’t care. No need to search my brain for heartfelt spiritual metaphors from Daily Life™. When we have the Monkees!

Riu riu chiu, la guarda ribera;
Dios guardo el lobo de nuestra cordera,
Dios guardo el lobo de neustra cordera.

El lobo rabioso la quiso morder,
Mas Dios poderoso la supo defender;
Quisola hazer que no pudiese pecar,
Ni aun original esta Virgen no tuviera.

Riu, riu chiu…

Este qu’es nacido es el gran monarca,
Christo patriarca de carne vestido;
Hemos redemido con se hazer chiquito,
Aunqu’era infinito, finito se hiziera.

Translation:

River, roaring river, guard our homes in safety,
God has kept the black wolf from our lamb, our Lady.
God has kept the black wolf from our lamb, our Lady.

Raging mad to bite her, there the wolf did steal,
But our God Almighty defended her with zeal.
Pure He wished to keep Her so She could never sin,
That first sin of man never touched the Virgin sainted.

River, roaring river…

He who’s now begotten is our mighty Monarch,
Christ, our Holy Father, in human flesh embodied.
He has brough atonement by being born so humble,
Though He is immortal, as mortal was created.

River, roaring river…

 

Here’s a helpful video that someone put up with subtitles. 

And the Kingston Trio:

More from Fr. Steve Grunow on the song and the feast.

It’s a good day to download a free e-book on Mary – Mary and the Christian Life, which I wrote a few years ago, and is now out of print…you can have it!  Go here for the pdf download.

You can also get a Kindle version through Amazon – normally it’s .99 – but today it’s free. Go check it out!

Now for the good stuff, from someone who actually knows what he’s talking about…a few selections from “Father Benedict” – on this feast.

 

2012

The light that shines from the figure of Mary also helps us to understand the true meaning of original sin. Indeed that relationship with God which sin truncates is fully alive and active in Mary. In her there is no opposition between God and her being: there is full communion, full understanding. There is a reciprocal “yes”: God to her and her to God. Mary is free from sin because she belongs entirely to God, she empties herself totally for him. She is full of his Grace and of his Love.

To conclude, the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary expresses the certainty of faith that God’s promises have been fulfilled and that his Covenant does not fail but has produced a holy root from which came forth the blessed Fruit of the whole universe, Jesus the Saviour. The Immaculate Virgin shows that Grace can give rise to a response, that God’s fidelity can bring forth a true and good faith.

 And for even more substance from a homily he gave in 2005 on the feast – it was also the 40th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council.  It’s lengthy but SO worth it, an excellent reflection of what he has written elsewhere on it (for example, in this book):

But now we must ask ourselves:  What does “Mary, the Immaculate” mean? Does this title have something to tell us? Today, the liturgy illuminates the content of these words for us in two great images.

First of all comes the marvellous narrative of the annunciation of the Messiah’s coming to Mary, the Virgin of Nazareth. The Angel’s greeting is interwoven with threads from the Old Testament, especially from the Prophet Zephaniah. He shows that Mary, the humble provincial woman who comes from a priestly race and bears within her the great priestly patrimony of Israel, is “the holy remnant” of Israel to which the prophets referred in all the periods of trial and darkness.

In her is present the true Zion, the pure, living dwelling-place of God. In her the Lord dwells, in her he finds the place of his repose. She is the living house of God, who does not dwell in buildings of stone but in the heart of living man. She is the shoot which sprouts from the stump of David in the dark winter night of history. In her, the words of the Psalm are fulfilled:  “The earth has yielded its fruits” (Ps 67: 7).

She is the offshoot from which grew the tree of redemption and of the redeemed. God has not failed, as it might have seemed formerly at the beginning of history with Adam and Eve or during the period of the Babylonian Exile, and as it seemed anew in Mary’s time when Israel had become a people with no importance in an occupied region and with very few recognizable signs of its holiness.

God did not fail. In the humility of the house in Nazareth lived holy Israel, the pure remnant. God saved and saves his people. From the felled tree trunk Israel’s history shone out anew, becoming a living force that guides and pervades the world.

Mary is holy Israel:  she says “yes” to the Lord, she puts herself totally at his disposal and thus becomes the living temple of God.

The second image is much more difficult and obscure. This metaphor from the Book of Genesis speaks to us from a great historical distance and can only be explained with difficulty; only in the course of history has it been possible to develop a deeper understanding of what it refers to.

It was foretold that the struggle between humanity and the serpent, that is, between man and the forces of evil and death, would continue throughout history.

It was also foretold, however, that the “offspring” of a woman would one day triumph and would crush the head of the serpent to death; it was foretold that the offspring of the woman – and in this offspring the woman and the mother herself – would be victorious and that thus, through man, God would triumph.

If we set ourselves with the believing and praying Church to listen to this text, then we can begin to understand what original sin, inherited sin, is and also what the protection against this inherited sin is, what redemption is.

What picture does this passage show us? The human being does not trust God. Tempted by the serpent, he harbours the suspicion that in the end, God takes something away from his life, that God is a rival who curtails our freedom and that we will be fully human only when we have cast him aside; in brief, that only in this way can we fully achieve our freedom.

The human being lives in the suspicion that God’s love creates a dependence and that he must rid himself of this dependency if he is to be fully himself. Man does not want to receive his existence and the fullness of his life from God.

He himself wants to obtain from the tree of knowledge the power to shape the world, to make himself a god, raising himself to God’s level, and to overcome death and darkness with his own efforts. He does not want to rely on love that to him seems untrustworthy; he relies solely on his own knowledge since it confers power upon him. Rather than on love, he sets his sights on power, with which he desires to take his own life autonomously in hand. And in doing so, he trusts in deceit rather than in truth and thereby sinks with his life into emptiness, into death.

Love is not dependence but a gift that makes us live. The freedom of a human being is the freedom of a limited being, and therefore is itself limited. We can possess it only as a shared freedom, in the communion of freedom:  only if we live in the right way, with one another and for one another, can freedom develop.

We live in the right way if we live in accordance with the truth of our being, and that is, in accordance with God’s will. For God’s will is not a law for the human being imposed from the outside and that constrains him, but the intrinsic measure of his nature, a measure that is engraved within him and makes him the image of God, hence, a free creature.

If we live in opposition to love and against the truth – in opposition to God – then we destroy one another and destroy the world. Then we do not find life but act in the interests of death. All this is recounted with immortal images in the history of the original fall of man and the expulsion of man from the earthly Paradise.

Dear brothers and sisters, if we sincerely reflect about ourselves and our history, we have to say that with this narrative is described not only the history of the beginning but the history of all times, and that we all carry within us a drop of the poison of that way of thinking, illustrated by the images in the Book of Genesis.

We call this drop of poison “original sin”. Precisely on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, we have a lurking suspicion that a person who does not sin must really be basically boring and that something is missing from his life:  the dramatic dimension of being autonomous; that the freedom to say no, to descend into the shadows of sin and to want to do things on one’s own is part of being truly human; that only then can we make the most of all the vastness and depth of our being men and women, of being truly ourselves; that we should put this freedom to the test, even in opposition to God, in order to become, in reality, fully ourselves.

In a word, we think that evil is basically good, we think that we need it, at least a little, in order to experience the fullness of being. We think that Mephistopheles – the tempter – is right when he says he is the power “that always wants evil and always does good” (J.W. von Goethe, Faust I, 3). We think that a little bargaining with evil, keeping for oneself a little freedom against God, is basically a good thing, perhaps even necessary.

If we look, however, at the world that surrounds us we can see that this is not so; in other words, that evil is always poisonous, does not uplift human beings but degrades and humiliates them. It does not make them any the greater, purer or wealthier, but harms and belittles them.

This is something we should indeed learn on the day of the Immaculate Conception:  the person who abandons himself totally in God’s hands does not become God’s puppet, a boring “yes man”; he does not lose his freedom. Only the person who entrusts himself totally to God finds true freedom, the great, creative immensity of the freedom of good.

The person who turns to God does not become smaller but greater, for through God and with God he becomes great, he becomes divine, he becomes truly himself. The person who puts himself in God’s hands does not distance himself from others, withdrawing into his private salvation; on the contrary, it is only then that his heart truly awakens and he becomes a sensitive, hence, benevolent and open person.

The closer a person is to God, the closer he is to people. We see this in Mary. The fact that she is totally with God is the reason why she is so close to human beings.

For this reason she can be the Mother of every consolation and every help, a Mother whom anyone can dare to address in any kind of need in weakness and in sin, for she has understanding for everything and is for everyone the open power of creative goodness.

In her, God has impressed his own image, the image of the One who follows the lost sheep even up into the mountains and among the briars and thornbushes of the sins of this world, letting himself be spiked by the crown of thorns of these sins in order to take the sheep on his shoulders and bring it home.

As a merciful Mother, Mary is the anticipated figure and everlasting portrait of the Son. Thus, we see that the image of the Sorrowful Virgin, of the Mother who shares her suffering and her love, is also a true image of the Immaculate Conception. Her heart was enlarged by being and feeling together with God. In her, God’s goodness came very close to us.

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St. Ambrose, today.

He’s in the Loyola Kids Book of Saints, under “Saints are People Who Change Their Lives for God.” 

You can peek at the chapter here, at Google Books.

Almost six years ago, we did a spring break trip to Milan (freaky low airfare.  I’ll bet if you flew to Orlando that year for spring break and went to Disney, I spent less than you did on our trip.).  And of course, Milan=Ambrose.

(What you might not know is that Milan, as the center of Lombardy in northern Italy, has been the focus of so much attempted conquest and other warfare over the centures, has very little ancient, medieval or even Renaissance architecture or infrastructure.  The basilica of St. Ambrose is an anomaly in the city. Leonardo’s Last Supper barely survived the Allied bombing of WWII.)

But first, to the Duomo –
In the crypt of the Duomo – the baptistry where St. Ambrose baptized St. Augustine:

The Metro stop is nearby, and an underground corridor passes the baptistry.  You can peek out at the passengers rushing by, and if you are on the other side you could peek in to the baptistry – if you knew it was there.

A different type of modern transport juxtaposed with the ancient.   Some wheels from the city’s bike-sharing service in front of the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio –

one of the four churches built by Ambrose. (of course what we see is not the original – but is the result of building and rebuilding on the site.)

In other places you can find photos of the body of St. Ambrose in the crypt.  I  didn’t take his photo though. I probably could have – a little girl stuck her camera right through the grate and got a shot of the vested skeleton and no one stopped her. But it just didn’t feel right to me. Maybe because the boys were with me and I didn’t want to model “getting a good shot” as even Step Two (after “pray”) in “What To do in the Presence of Important Saints’ Relics.”

B16 at a General Audience, speaking about St. Ambrose:

Dear brothers and sisters, I would like further to propose to you a sort of “patristic icon”, which, interpreted in the light of what we have said, effectively represents “the heart” of Ambrosian doctrine. In the sixth book of the Confessions, Augustine tells of his meeting with Ambrose, an encounter that was indisputably of great importance in the history of the Church. He writes in his text that whenever he went to see the Bishop of Milan, he would regularly find him taken up with catervae of people full of problems for whose needs he did his utmost. There was always a long queue waiting to talk to Ambrose, seeking in him consolation and hope. When Ambrose was not with them, with the people (and this happened for the space of the briefest of moments), he was either restoring his body with the necessary food or nourishing his spirit with reading. Here Augustine marvels because Ambrose read the Scriptures with his mouth shut, only with his eyes (cf. Confessions, 6, 3). Indeed, in the early Christian centuries reading was conceived of strictly for proclamation, and reading aloud also facilitated the reader’s understanding. That Ambrose could scan the pages with his eyes alone suggested to the admiring Augustine a rare ability for reading and familiarity with the Scriptures. Well, in that “reading under one’s breath”, where the heart is committed to achieving knowledge of the Word of God – this is the “icon” to which we are referring -, one can glimpse the method of Ambrosian catechesis; it is Scripture itself, intimately assimilated, which suggests the content to proclaim that will lead to the conversion of hearts.

Thus, with regard to the magisterium of Ambrose and of Augustine, catechesis is inseparable from witness of life. What I wrote on the theologian in the Introduction to Christianity might also be useful to the catechist. An educator in the faith cannot risk appearing like a sort of clown who recites a part “by profession”. Rather – to use an image dear to Origen, a writer who was particularly appreciated by Ambrose -, he must be like the beloved disciple who rested his head against his Master’s heart and there learned the way to think, speak and act. The true disciple is ultimately the one whose proclamation of the Gospel is the most credible and effective.

Like the Apostle John, Bishop Ambrose – who never tired of saying: “Omnia Christus est nobis! To us Christ is all!” – continues to be a genuine witness of the Lord. Let us thus conclude our Catechesis with his same words, full of love for Jesus: “Omnia Christus est nobis! If you have a wound to heal, he is the doctor; if you are parched by fever, he is the spring; if you are oppressed by injustice, he is justice; if you are in need of help, he is strength; if you fear death, he is life; if you desire Heaven, he is the way; if you are in the darkness, he is light…. Taste and see how good is the Lord:  blessed is the man who hopes in him!” (De Virginitate, 16, 99). Let us also hope in Christ. We shall thus be blessed and shall live in peace.

 

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Another great saint.  B16 spoke about him at a General Audience in 2009. It’s very appropriate that John’s feast falls during Advent, during our preparation for the Feast of the Incarnation.

(I have re-paragraphed it for ease of reading. Also bolded some key points.)

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 XIII proclaimed 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. Thus the arguments of the Doctor of the East are still extremely relevant today, considering the very great dignity that matter has acquired through the Incarnation, capable of becoming, through faith, a sign and a sacrament, efficacious in the meeting of man with God. John Damascene remains, therefore, a privileged witness of the cult of icons, which would come to be one of the most distinctive aspects of Eastern spirituality up to the present day. It is, however, a form of cult which belongs simply to the Christian faith, to the faith in that God who became flesh and was made visible. The teaching of Saint John Damascene thus finds its place in the tradition of the universal Church, whose sacramental doctrine foresees that material elements taken from nature can become vehicles of grace by virtue of the invocation (epiclesis) of the Holy Spirit, accompanied by the confession of the true faith.

John Damascene extends these fundamental ideas to the veneration of the relics of Saints, on the basis of the conviction that the Christian Saints, having become partakers of the Resurrection of Christ, cannot be considered simply “dead”. Numbering, for example, those "amy welborn"whose relics or images are worthy of veneration, John states in his third discourse in defence of images: “First of all (let us venerate) those among whom God reposed, he alone Holy, who reposes among the Saints (cf. Is 57: 15), such as the Mother of God and all the Saints. These are those who, as far as possible, have made themselves similar to God by their own will; and by God’s presence in them, and his help, they are really called gods (cf. Ps 82[81]: 6), not by their nature, but by contingency, just as the red-hot iron is called fire, not by its nature, but by contingency and its participation in the fire. He says in fact : you shall be holy, because I am Holy (cf. Lv 19: 2)” (III, 33, col. 1352 a).

After a series of references of this kind, John Damascene was able serenely to deduce: “God, who is good, and greater than any goodness, was not content with the contemplation of himself, but desired that there should be beings benefited by him, who might share in his goodness: therefore he created from nothing all things, visible and invisible, including man, a reality visible and invisible. And he created him envisaging him and creating him as a being capable of thought (ennoema ergon), enriched with the word (logo[i] sympleroumenon), and orientated towards the spirit (pneumati teleioumenon)” (II, 2, pg 94, col. 865a). And to clarify this thought further, he adds: “We must allow ourselves to be filled with wonder (thaumazein) at all the works of Providence (tes pronoias erga), to accept and praise them all, overcoming any temptation to identify in them aspects which to many may seem unjust or iniquitous, (adika), and admitting instead that the project of God (pronoia) goes beyond man’s capacity to know or to understand (agnoston kai akatalepton), while on the contrary only he may know our thoughts, our actions, and even our future” (ii, 29, pg 94, col. 964c).

Plato had in fact already said that all philosophy begins with wonder. Our faith, too, begins with wonder at the very fact of the Creation, and at the beauty of God who makes himself visible.

The optimism of the contemplation of nature (physike theoria), of seeing in the visible creation the good, the beautiful, the true, this Christian optimism, is not ingenuous: it takes account of the wound inflicted on human nature by the freedom of choice desired by God and misused by man, with all the consequences of widespread discord which have derived from it. From this derives the need, clearly perceived by John Damascene, that nature, in which the goodness and beauty of God are reflected, wounded by our fault, “should be strengthened and renewed” by the descent of the Son of God in the flesh, after God had tried in many ways and on many occasions, to show that he had created man so that he might exist not only in “being”, but also in “well-being” (cf. The Orthodox Faith, II, 1, pg 94, col. 981).

With passionate eagerness John explains: “It was necessary for nature to be strengthened and renewed, and for the path of virtue to be indicated and effectively taught (didachthenai aretes hodòn), the path that leads away from corruption and towards eternal life…. So there appeared on the horizon of history the great sea of love that God bears towards man (philanthropias pelagos)”…. It is a fine expression. We see on one side the beauty of Creation, and on the other the destruction wrought by the fault of man. But we see in the Son of God, who descends to renew nature, the sea of love that God has for man. John Damascene continues: “he himself, the Creator and the Lord, fought for his Creation, transmitting to it his teaching by example…. And so the Son of God, while still remaining in the form of God, lowered the skies and descended… to his servants… achieving the newest thing of all, the only thing really new under the sun, through which he manifested the infinite power of God” (III, 1, pg 94, col. 981c-984b).

We may imagine the comfort and joy which these words, so rich in fascinating images, poured into the hearts of the faithful. We listen to them today, sharing the same feelings with the Christians of those far-off days: God desires to repose in us, he wishes to renew nature through our conversion, he wants to allow us to share in his divinity. May the Lord help us to make these words the substance of our lives.

More from Ellyn von Huben at Word on Fire

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Just a couple few pages from recent books, offered in the hope that they will help the children in your life experience Advent in a deeper way.

First, remember that my Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories is organized according to the liturgical year. The stories retold for Advent include “Prophets Say That a Messiah is Coming,” “Prophets Describe the Messiah,” “Zechariah Meets the Angel Gabriel” and so on.

The first reading today refers to the Messiah, the Branch grown for David. In The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols, I cover the Jesse Tree – the traditional artistic rendering of this concept.

Note how it’s organized – and this the organization of the entire book. On the left side for every entry is a short, simple explanation for younger children. On the right is a more in-depth entry for older students.

Please consider sharing these books with your local Catholic parish and school classrooms – every classroom should have a set!

 

For more Advent resources, go here.

And for a rich representation of the Tree of Jesse and more historical background, visit Daniel Matsui. 

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I’m in Living Faith today, and if you are interested in the church I described in the devotional, go to this blog post for more information and photos – but only of the exterior, since they don’t allow photographs inside.

For that, go to this link – just a link to an image search for the church – Santa Maria Tonantzintila.

Here’s a sample:

Tonantzintla

 

Quick reminder – short on a family Advent devotional? Download one for .99 here!

 

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