Friday, December 31, 2010

St Sylvester I, Pope and Confessor

1 Peter 5:1-4, 10-11 / Matthew 16:13-19

In his collection of Sicilian folk tales, Giuseppe Pitrè includes a tale of St Sylvester. According to the tale, a king by the name of Constantine threatened to punish the saintly pope and remove him from his throne if he should not approve Constantine's desire to take a second wife. The pope, fearful of being forced to offend God for the sake of pleasing his king, flees into the woods where, in a chapel build by Jesus Christ himself, he is able to spend his days in quiet prayer. So powerful is God's love for the pontiff, that he sends leprosy upon the king, an illness so severe that no means could be found to cure it. Warned in a dream that only the prayers of Sylvester could cure him, the king sends soldiers into the woods to retrieve the pope. The holy man, however, is reluctant to accompany them: 'If my wish was to please him,' answered the pope, 'I would have done so at the beginning.'

Even so, the pope agrees to accompany the soldiers, but only after he has celebrated Mass and they have dined from plants whose seeds he has only just planted before their eyes. Unable to do otherwise, the unbelieving soldiers assist at the pope's Mass, where they witness an angel from God appear to serve, an image of the infant Lord in the Host, the appearance of his Blood in the chalice. After the Mass, they find the newly planted seeds now fully grown plants, from which they have more than enough to eat. So moved by what they have seen, the soldiers are baptized. The pope returns with these new Christians to the king, who is himself assured that he will be healed from his illness if he submits to the law of Christ and is baptized. He agrees, and is healed.

The story, of course, has no foundation in history, save that Sylvester reigned when Constantine the Great became first Augustus, then sole emperor of the West, and finally sole emperor of the Roman Empire, and that this same Constantine did not only free the Church from its persecution, but also supported and endowed it, finally receiving baptism from the Church near the end of his life. Sylvester, however, seems to be the magnet of fabulous stories, whether the fanciful one told by Pitrè or the more lastingly influential claim that Constantine had endowed the pope with temporal authority over the lands of the West.

We may be inclined to think that there is nothing we can learn from these tales. However, in this we are mistaken. Even if the events they recite are untrue, the position of Sylvester in both is clear. In both tales, Constantine tries, by threat or by gift, to move the pope to exchange his true spiritual authority for an earthly one. The deal seems attractive. After all, it would seem that more can be done to fulfill the works of the Gospel with the blessings of the state than without it.

However, Sylvester's legendary time in the woods, and indeed the best examples of those men who have sat in the See of Peter, tells us another truth. It reminds us that the Church can only do what it has been commissioned to do, can only witness with truth and power to the Word made flesh, when it does so without compromise. This means that even when the Church is to all visible evidence deprived of power, it is always retains that chapel built in the wilderness by Jesus Christ himself. Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. As Sylvester reminds the king in Pitrè's tale, How did you expect me to disobey God's commands? If I had done that, I wouldn't have been able to perform these miracles.

There is only one crown the Church should ever seek, one glory and empire, and that is the unfading crown given by our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain us even when the influence of the Church on the world seems to be feeble or even altogether absent. We hope not in the world, but in Christ. To him be glory and empire for ever and ever. Amen.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas

Titus 3:4, 7 / Luke 2:15, 20

As a matter of course, we like to see things for ourselves. The more remarkable the claim or the sight, we would, all things being equal, prefer to behold with our own eyes than rely on the reports of others. To discover that there is something important about what we are doing or seeking that we can only know by the testimony of others does not always sit so well with us. If it were so important, would it not be available to any and all?

In our Gospel today, God confronts our need to see for ourselves. To be sure, the shepherds follow our preferred patters: they hear the word of the angel, and having heard they set out to see this word that is come to pass ... And seeing they understood of the word that had been spoken to them concerning this Child. However, not all who saw the newborn child, not even his Virgin Mother, was privileged to hear the remarkable glad tidings of the angel of the Lord, nor the heavenly choir hymning glory to God and peace on earth. This was reserved to the shepherds alone.

Seeing the babe, otherwise so ordinary, those who heard the tale of the shepherds had two choices. They could remain stupefied — And all that heard wondered: and at those things that were told them by the shepherds. Or, they might take in the glad tidings, receive the Good News not as words from strangers, but as addressed through them by God directly to us. But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart.

Brothers and sisters, the Church across the world, in her preachers and worship, in her service to neighbor and in her silent contemplation, continues like the returning shepherds to glorify and praise God for all the things she has heard and seen from the cave of Bethlehem to the present day. Much of what she has to tell us may seem remarkable, even to those deep and firm in faith. Will we, this Christmas, remain in wonder and confusion about whatever in the Gospel is to us almost too wonderful to believe? Or, will we follow the lead of the Virgin, keeping all the words the Church proposes to us, the most difficult along with the most joyful, and ponder them in our hearts?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

St Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr

Hebrews 5:1-6 / John 10:11-16

We are committed in Christmastide to the idea of radical moral transformation. Whether we prefer the works of Dickens or of Seuss, we believe, or at least we tell ourselves we believe, that something about this holy season can melt even the coldest of spirits, can enlarge a diminished heart, can replace humbug with good cheer. We are also committed, or we seem to be committed, to the belief that such transformation can be radical, can take place literally overnight, or even from the hearing of one song, earnestly and sincerely sung. It is not, that is, merely a reward of our personal merit. Neither doth any man take the honour to himself, but he that is called by God.

On the other hand, when the tinsel is packed away, the ornaments have gone back in their boxes, the toys have been safely taken up to the children's rooms, and the fruitcake has finally been consumed, our Christmastide certainties appear to us far from certain. The colleague who irritates us, the spouse who nags, the brother who scandalizes, or the daughter who disappoints — what would we do if they told us that they had, by the power of Christmas, been transformed utterly? How willing would we be to believe that, here and now, in the world in which we live, and not the delightful fictions in which we revel over the holidays, the Scrooges and Grinches are actually capable of radical transformation, of living out of charity poured into them from above?

When King Henry II appointed Thomas Becket, his longtime friend, to be Archbishop of Canterbury, he had no reason to believe that his very earthly, practical, not altogether morally uncompromised companion would be any different with his mitre than without. At first he could not believe, and then he would not, that his good friend Thomas, whose character he knew all too well, had altered so dramatically, that he had come to care, and care deeply, for the poor, the sheep entrusted to him as Primate of England. The king did not see that God had allowed Thomas his earlier brokenness not so as to bar him from being recreated in the Gospel, but so that he could have compassion on them that are ignorant and that err; because he himself also is compassed with infirmity. When by the rashness of his cursing Henry set in motion the murder of Thomas within the cathedral, the shedding of his own blood as a gift and sacrifice acceptable to God, the king could not forsee that even this dark moment would be transformed to the happy intercession of a saintly martyr, not only for the poor of Canterbury, but for the faithful across Europe for centuries to come.

God's promises of new life in the Gospel are true. As we believe them, indeed trust in them to be so, we must also be committed to rejoicing in that transformation even, perhaps especially, when it occurs in persons in whom we had long given up hope. Will we let our neighbors, even our intimate friends, become more like Christ, even should that transformation serve as an accusation of our own hardness of heart? Will we let ourselves be so transformed, even at the cost of losing the friendship of those who long for us to be not only in the world, not of it?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Holy Innocents, Martyrs

Apocalypse 14:1-5 / Matthew 2:13-18

Carol singing is one of the happy gifts of the Christmas season. There are few people in this time, even among those who do not believe, who do not delight in the beauty, the joy, the warmth and hope, which radiate from Christmas carols. However, in the midst of even the most beloved songs in this hallowed time, we find chilling words.

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, / The cross be borne for me, for you

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom: / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying / Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

Herod the king, in his raging, / chargèd he hath this day / his men of might in his own sight / all children young to slay.

 Apart from the bowdlerized versions of Christmas carols that try their best to erase these grim words, we find that, if not at the heart of the Nativity then certainly quite near it, are the somber strains and echoes of the Passion and Death.

If we are lucky, we will find ourselves singing and remembering these words along with the other rightfully joyful and happy songs. Why? First of all, because, as the carols remind us, Christ was born for this. That is, the mystery of the Incarnation, the whole drama of the Word made flesh, inaugurated in the Annunciation and made manifest in the Nativity, was directed from before the dawn of time in the hidden counsels of the Father, to Golgotha and the Sepulchre. While we can and do rightly revel in other facets of this joyful mystery of our faith during these holidays, we ought never to lose sight of that mystery more terrible and awful, but for that reason more disclosing of Love inexpressible and exhaustible than the silent Word in the manger, namely the Word nailed to the wood of the Cross.

Second, we are for that reason better prepared to allow that the joys of Christmas are compatible with the sorrows of this world. That justifiable lightness of heart that comes from the events of Bethlehem must stand, undiluted to be sure, but stand nonetheless side by side with the trials and anxieties of the Holy Family's flight into Egypt, as well as the bloody horror of the massacre of the infants, the Holy Innocents whom we honor this day. Even in fiction, the embodiment of robust and hearty joy found in Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Present is the guardian of the wretched children, more monstrous than human, of Ignorance and Want. Where those of us well off and comfortable might do well not to exclude such as these from our thoughts in this holy time, we may hope that our brothers and sisters who suffer terribly might not be altogether deprived of Christmas joy.

Third, sorrow and pain is not only compatible with the joy of Christmastide, it is rather the proper fruit of that joy. To honor the Christ in the manger is to commit oneself to a life conformed to his. To worship the silent Word in the cave of Bethlehem is to journey towards that other cave in a garden near Jerusalem, where no body before had been buried. This is why the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, even though a thing grievous and terrible in itself, is a cause not for inconsolable mourning but for thanksgiving. These infants, before they could confess Christ with their lips, did so with their blood, and so more perfectly than we who stumble in our discipleship, they responded to the birth of the infant King in the way we all must, in one manner or another. If we would honor Christmas, then we would embrace a life in which our bloody death in witness to the Gospel is not a tragedy, but a noble and fitting return, a conforming of ourselves to the Christ who, even from his infancy, had already turned his face to Jerusalem.

Then, woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and say
For Thy parting nor say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Monday, December 27, 2010

St John, Apostle and Evangelist

Ecclesiasticus 15:1-6 / John 21:19-24

Near the end of the Indian epic Ramayana, when the hero Rama, who is the avatara of Vishnu, the Most High God, decides to leave the world and ascend to the heavenly places, most of his companions decide to accompany him. However, one of them, Hanuman, who was his most intimate and loyal devotee, makes a remarkable request. Rather than leave the world and its troubles to enjoy the bliss of the heavens, Hanuman asks to remain upon the earth for as long as the praises of Rama are sung by men. His wish is granted, and so Hanuman joined the ranks of the chiranjivin, the immortals, who walk the world free from the inevitability of death.

How different is the life of another beloved disciple, not the mythical fancy of an Indian epic, but St John, the virginal apostle and evangelist, the one who laid his head on the breast of Jesus, his Lord, the Word made flesh and Son of God Most High. In the days after the Lord's resurrection, a rumor spread that suggested John was made a sort of Christian chiranjivi, that Christ the Lord had promised as Rama had to Hanuman, that John would not die until he returned to judge the world. John in his Gospel, however, is very clear that the Lord has been misunderstood. And Jesus did not say to him: He should not die; but: So I will have him to remain till I come: what is it to thee? This is that disciple who giveth testimony of these things, and hath written these things: and we know that he testimony is true. John, like all of the apostles, was appointed to die, even if, unlike the others, he was spared the trials of bloody martyrdom.

We might be tempted, as were those early disciples, to imagine that anyone so beloved of God, so intimate with God in the flesh, would be spared the horrors of death. After all, did not Jesus weep over the death of Lazarus, whom he loved? Did he not spare the virgin John, as he spared his Virgin Mother, the agonies of a painful death, and if so, might he not have spared them the disgrace of death altogether?

In thinking this way, we forget what the whole point of Christian life is on earth. We are here not simply to praise God every day of our lives. We should do that, of course, but the life of unending praise is the life of heaven, the life toward which we tend and hope, which we anticipate in worship, in sacrament, and in religious consecration. It is not, however, our principal task. Rather, our task is to become, day be day, little by little, in great conversions and in small turnings of the heart, more like the Lord who loved us so much as to assume our frail nature, die for us, and rise from the dead. Our life on earth is a pilgrimage, a discipleship, a chance to pattern ourselves not on the old Adam we inherit, but on the new Adam, made manifest to us as the silent Word, the Verbum infans at Christmas, gloriously exalted on the Cross, and splendid to behold in his Easter majesty. This means, then, that if we would love the Lord, if we would experience the love to which he calls us, is we are to heed his summons — Follow me. — then we must also taste death as he tasted death.

The Christian life, the life of intimacy which is so eminently manifested in the life of St John, is a conformity to the Word made flesh, not only in living, but in dying as well. May we seek less to be freed in this life from our troubles, but rather strive in searching out an intimacy with Jesus Christ to live and to suffer all things for the sake of his name.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sunday within the Octave of Christmas

Galatians 4:1-7 / Luke 2:33-40

For many adults, the celebration of Christmas is an occasion to return, in thought and sentiment if not in fact, to childhood. Even the most progressive among us, those otherwise most embracing of change and novelty, will happily return to the sounds, sights and smells, the rites and customs, that introduced us long ago to greeting the infant King. In place of our daily obligations, the burdens and trials of our grown-up lives, we delight in the shiny tinsel and brightly colored lights, in the carols and cakes. Or, if we cannot manage to do so ourselves, we take vicarious delight in the joys of our children, our nieces and nephews, or any child in whose eyes we see again the boundless delight of a merry Christmas.

In doing so, we tend to forget what it was to be a child. To be sure, children enjoy Christmas, and many other things in life, with great abandon. Still, they also yearn to be grown up, to be adults, to enjoy that freedom and autonomy, as well as the full use of their mental and physical powers, that comes from being a rational animal. They know all to well, even if they cannot put it into words or even a clear concept, that they are under tutors and governors. They know all too well that their lives are characterized not so much by the freedom to pursue the good with the best of their skill, but rather only the freedom to receive the goods others older, and sometimes but not always wiser, have chosen to give.

This means, then, that wanting to return to childhood is, at root, unnatural. It is of the very essence of being a child to be oriented in everything, even in the most childish joy and play, towards becoming an adult. To be grown up means not to lose the joys of childhood, but rather to be able to pursue them with the dignity and freedom proper to being human, sharing no longer the safe but circumscribed life of the child's table, but rather partaking fully of the richer and more satisfying fare of the banquet hall.

St Paul means to remind us of this truth, no so much with regard to our biological age, but with an eye to our spiritual state. We are, he reminds us, no longer spiritual children. In light of the coming of the Lord in the flesh, we are no longer under tutors and governors, no longer serving under the elements of the world. Rather, we have been invited to share in the very life of the Father. Made brothers of the Son through his Incarnation, we have moved beyond merely knowing what it means to receive the Father's love and care. In place of this inestimable joy, we have been given the even greater and inexpressibly wondrous invitation to live the very life of God, to share, with the Son of God the love he receives from the Father, in the Holy Spirit.

Practically speaking, this means that the life of a Christian, even those of the most tender age, is directed not to the safely guarded and private delights of a child with his toys on Christmas morning, but to an open proclamation and a sharing of our joys with those who see no joy in their own life. As the Father sent his Son into the world, we are all of us, as heirs and sons moved beyond the tutelage of the Law into the life of the Spirit, called to live as our Father lives, and so to give as alms our goods both material and spiritual to those who long for them. Like Anna the prophetess, we are to speak of the coming of the Lord to all who hope for the redemption of Israel, speaking in both word and deed.

If Christmas directs us to think of the infant King, is does not and should not infantilize us. In the child who has been born to us, the son given to us, may we find not a summons back to childhood, but the happy sign of our emancipation and a signal of our freedom. In that newfound liberty to be generous as the Father has been generous to us, what should draw us back from giving to the poor all around us?

O almighty and everlasting God, direct our actions according to Thy good pleasure; that in the Name of Thy beloved Son, we may deserve to abound in good works.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Nativity of Our Lord (Mass during the Day)

Hebrews 1:1-12 / John 1

When parents first see their newborn infant, the world that but moments before was confused and confusing, filled with moral ambiguities and anxiety, in an instant makes sense. People happily married for years can look back fondly on that instant when they knew that he was the one, that it was the sake of meeting and marrying her that every other event in his life had collaborated in benevolent and delightful conspiracy. At these moments, and countless others like them, we assert to the world that in seeing the face of this or that person whom we love, and who loves us beyond our deserving, the whole of the universe falls into place and makes sense. There is, for lovers and beloved, behind the veil of things neither emptiness, nor chaos, nor malice, nor void, but fulness, order, love inexpressible, Logos.

En archê ên ho Logos. In principio erat Verbum. In the beginning was the Word.

Today we hear voices, urgent, proselytizing, strident voices, angry voices telling all who would hear and countless others who would not that the lovers' intuition is mistaken. The world, they insist, is a brute, raw fact. However orderly and intelligible its processes, however wondrous the patterns it expresses, there is nothing, and more crucially no one behind it all. Finding meaning in things, they would tell us, may be an unavoidable, even evolutionarily advantageous trait of human beings, but it is a projection into the abyss, a neurotic discovery of patterns and persons in the faceless, impersonal universe.

And why are these voices so strident? They worry that patterning our lives after the image of the face of Love, however sincere and well-meaning, is false, and will inevitably lead us to make sacrifices contrary to our flourishing, and the flourishing of our neighbors here and now. Adolescents, they remind us, can protest that they have found everlasting love, and they speak what they indeed feel to be the case, but we would be wrong to allow them to pattern their whole life around such affections, since we know, as they do not, how easily such feelings pass, no matter how strongly felt and asserted. Writ large, seeing in the universe the work of Love, alarms such self-styled defenders of rationality as the dangerous concession on a global scale to a collective, and worryingly self-destructive, adolescent desire to love and be loved.

On this solemn celebration of the Lord's Nativity, we must refuse the worries of these false prophets of a sham and insubstantial rationality and embrace with joy the Logos, the Word, the heir of all things, by whom God made the world, the brightness of God's glory and the figure of His substance, who upholds all things by the word of His power. We bend the knee before the Word who was in the beginning, the Word who was with God, the Word who was God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was made nothing that was made: in Him was life. On this happy day we embrace the logic of love, the logic that enlivens and enlightens reason, and sees persons, persons who are bound and abide in love, not as the pleasant trappings of a merciless, mechanical universe of fundamentally inert bodies, but as the very foundation of all that is. More than that, we tell with joy to all who would hear, and even to the world of this present darkness, that the same Love that makes sense of all things, brings all things together, and binds us all in one, has indeed drawn up our human life into his own. In short, we see, in the infant of Bethlehem nothing less than the very meaning of our lives, of all that has been, is, or ever shall be, and that meaning is a Love beyond all telling, a Word of unassailable Joy.

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.

The Nativity of Our Lord (Mass at Dawn)

Titus 3:4, 7 / Luke 2:15, 20

There is a moment in every party, in every performance, in every gathering of good cheer, when all of the frantic energy, all of the worries about how everything will turn out, all the rushing here and there so as not to miss out, comes to a stop. What we have long prepared to do or see, what we rushed eagerly to enjoy, has now come to pass, and so we pause. We sit, perhaps in silence, or perhaps with easy and effortless chatter. The intensity of the experienced is over, there is no doubt about that, but truth be told we don't miss it. We are not even thinking about it that way. We are aglow with the fresh memory of job well done, a meal happily eaten, a beautiful concert whose notes still ring in our ears. With nothing left to do, perhaps we sit and ponder, or perhaps we talk eagerly with others who have also enjoyed what we enjoyed. Still, one way or another, we know that the big moment is past, and we are all the better for it.

Our Gospel today recalls for us just such an experience. After the momentous events from nine months before with the virginal conception at the Annunciation, the unexpected joys of the Visitation, the trials of the journey to Bethlehem and the disappointments in finding lodging, the moment Mary and Joseph had long awaited had finally come to pass. After the fearful yet wonderful appearing of the angel of the Lord to the shepherds, the song of the multitude of the heavenly host, and the eager rushing to the manger, the shepherds have seen what the angel had promised. The moment, both long and recently awaited, had come, and the Word made flesh was manifest to the world. The moment had come, and now it had passed, leaving the Virgin Mother to ponder in her heart, the more gregarious shepherd to glorify and praise God with one another on their way back to the fields, once again to keep watch over their flocks by night.

The passing of that holy moment into the extended, if less dramatic moments of pondering, glorifying and praising, was not, for the Virgin and the shepherds, a cause for disappointment. They did not pine to return to the fearful moment of the angelic appearance in Nazareth or the nighttime fields, neither did they seek to hold time still at the moment of their first gazing on the holy child, frozen in time like a holiday creche. No, they gladly moved beyond the intensity of the moment to its prolongation in time, from the glorious cause to its happy and life-long, indeed life-giving effects. Now it was no longer the time to focus on what they needed to do to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Now was the time to receive the bounty of what the Lord had done, and would continue to do, for them.

This is likewise God's offer to us this Christmas morning. We have, perhaps, celebrated the birth of the Lord by observing its vigil, or by keeping ourselves awake like the shepherds at night, to greet the newborn King with our best echoes of angelic glory. Now, we begin Christmas Day, and the day, the season, and the year stretches out ahead of us. Do we try to bind our mind to those thrilling moments leading up to this day, our frantic if willingly self-imposed preparation for the celebration of this holy day? Will we want to fix ourselves in the heart of the Mass of the Nativity, leaving the pew only reluctantly? Or, dare we to let it all take effect, in silent pondering or in happy conversation, about what the Lord has done, is doing, and will continue to do in our lives?

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Nativity of Our Lord (Mass at Midnight)

Titus 2:11-15 / Luke 2:1-14

"Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"

It is the cry of lamentation of one Charlie Brown into the hostile, unruly auditorium filled with his peers, gathered under the pretext of celebrating Christmas but, for all of the trappings, leaving Charlie no closer to an answer. He has certainly seen his fair share of the happy promises of the season — of skating on a frozen lake, catching snowflakes on one's tongue (even, pace Lucy van Pelt, before January), and searching out the perfect tree to decorate, one that just needs a little love. He has also seen the shadow side — the cynicism of those who would gladly send cheers with Christmas cards yet just as easily sneer at those who were not on their mailing list; the commercialism so pervasive as to have gripped the heart of his little sister, and even his own dog; the superficiality that would prefer a pink tree made of soulless aluminum over a living, breathing tree, or the tinny sound of a childish rendition of Jingle Bells over the richness of the same melody played on a piano or organ; and even the cruelty of those who imagine that the honest desire to celebrate the holiday well is ruinous of the enjoyment of everyone else. There is, in short, no wonder that Charlie Brown needs guidance about the meaning of Christmas.

We know the reply Charlie Brown receives, from one Linus van Pelt. Stepping out onto a darkened stage, himself illumined, he recites in the august cadences of the Authorized Version: And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them: Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Strange as it seems, this recitation, which should be a clear enough answer for any to hear and understand, has become, of late, far from convincing. There are those, even Christians, for whom the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord has become a thing of sentiment and nostalgia, an occasion for spending time with children, family, and friends. There is much good in such a celebration, but what do we make of recent studies which show that, even among believers, more energy is spent telling children of Santa Claus than the story of the Lord's birth? What do we make of the practice of so many of our Protestant brethren to anticipate the celebration of Christmas on the Sunday preceding, allowing Christmas to be spent at home with the family? Indeed, what do we make of a world in which, not so long ago, pastors of some American megachurches cancelled Sunday services because they coincided with Christmas, and they desired to be "lifestyle-friendly for people who are just very, very busy"? Apparently, for many of the faithful, the glad tidings made to the shepherds is, if not absent, far from central to the keeping of this holy day.

At the same time, more and more unbelievers insist that Linus had it wrong, and that the Gospel we preach this day is altogether separable from the rest of the celebration. They assert, sometimes caustically, but sometimes kindly, that much that we want to celebrate — light, the turning of seasons, cheer and goodwill, kindness to neighbor and especially the least fortunate, the exchange of gifts, music and cheer and good food and company — could be done just as well and just as easily without any direct reference to the birth of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh and Savior of men. After all, we speak happily of Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday without honoring Tiw, Woden, Thunor, or Frige. Why, they ask, can we not keep the trappings of, even the name of Christmas, without needing thereby to honor Christ?

In short, does the proclamation of the birth of the Savior make any difference?

Given the news we proclaim, one might wonder how anyone would think it would not make a difference! If a man, far from home, received news that his beloved has agreed to marry him upon his return, if a patient should hear that what was feared to be malignant cancer is benign and operable, if refugees in a foreign place should be told that it is safe to return to their homeland, does the news make any difference? The sweetheart's agreement is no less real before her beloved receives the letter, the cancer is no more lethal absent the doctor's visit, and the homeland no less welcome apart from the report over the radio. Even so, can we say that hearing the good and great tidings is of no importance? Rather, ought we not to say that, in light of the good news, everything changes? Indeed, should we not, in the face of those who have been so distracted by the general celebration as to forget what we were celebrating in the first place, should we not strive all the more to live soberly and justly and godly in this world that they, along with us, might look for the blessed hope and coming of the glory of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ?

God has done unimaginably great things for us in sending his Son into the world. In him we are bought out from under the tyrannical slavery of sin and so healed from within that the good we long to be able to do, the love we so deeply hope we can express, are now really possible for us, and in ways far beyond our wildest hopes. We have, in the babe of Bethlehem announced by the angels, hope not only to do what is good, right, and just in this world, but a sure hope of joy unconquerable in the next, and in that hope more than enough reason to pause even now and anticipate as best we can with tinsel and tree, with candle and bonfire, with trumpet and organ and carol, with egg nog and puddings, with presents and good cheer.

What is Chrismas all about, Charlie Brown? It is the confidence that God, who has made this holy night shine forth with the splendor of the true Light, will grant that we, who have known the mysteries of his light on earth, may enjoy also his happiness in heaven.

Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis!

Historic Papal Thought for the Day on BBC

For the first time ever, the Pope delivered the "Thought for the Day" on BBC. I encourage you to listen to his words as you prepare to celebrate Christmas.

Recalling with great fondness my four-day visit to the United Kingdom last September, I am glad to have the opportunity to greet you once again, and indeed to greet listeners everywhere as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Our thoughts turn back to a moment in history when God's chosen people, the children of Israel, were living in intense expectation.
They were waiting for the Messiah that God had promised to send and they pictured him as a great leader who would rescue them from foreign domination and restore their freedom.
God is always faithful to his promises, but he often surprises us in the way he fulfils them.

The child that was born in Bethlehem did indeed bring liberation, but not only for the people of that time and place - he was to be the Saviour of all people throughout the world and throughout history.
And it was not a political liberation that he brought, achieved through military means; rather, Christ destroyed death forever and restored life by means of his shameful death on the Cross.
And while he was born in poverty and obscurity, far from the centres of earthly power, he was none other than the Son of God.
Out of love for us, he took upon himself our human condition, our fragility, our vulnerability and he opened up for us the path that leads to the fullness of life to a share in the life of God himself.
As we ponder this great mystery in our hearts this Christmas, let us give thanks to God for his goodness to us and let us joyfully proclaim to those around us the good news that God offers us freedom from whatever weighs us down: he gives us hope, he brings us life.
Dear Friends from Scotland, England, Wales and indeed every part of the English-speaking world. I want you to know that I keep all of you very much in my prayers this Holy Season.
I pray for your families, for your children, for those who are sick and for those who are going through any form of hardship at this time.
I pray especially for the elderly and for those who are approaching the end of their days.
I ask Christ, the light of the nations, to dispel whatever darkness there may be in your lives and to grant to every one of you the grace of a peaceful and joyful Christmas.
May God bless all of you!

Vigil of the Nativity of Our Lord

Romans 1:1-6 / Matthew 1:18-21

It is easy to feel dwarfed by the celebration of Christmas. Certainly, for those of us who live where the Christian faith it (or at least was) the faith of the majority and made the culture what it has come to be, Christmas as a public celebration has been largely unavoidable over the past few weeks, if not more. Our own best private attempts to observe Advent as we thought best have been challenged again and again, not merely by commercial interests, but by our friends, our relatives, our colleagues, all of whom have been busily calling upon us to observe Christmas early and often. The odds that we have had the Advent we might like to have had are, outside of strict cloister, slim to none.

Of course, we might think that, even apart from the commercial and social observance of Christmas, the truth of the holiday probably ought to make us feel small. After all, we are readying ourselves to celebrate the merciful appearing in the flesh of the Lord and Savior of all, the Word and Son of God. It is an event which not merely suggests, it demands that we set aside even our own relatively righteous schemes — as Joseph, being a just man, nonetheless was impelled to change his plans about Mary, being minded to put her away privately, in light of the revelation of the Angel of the Lord. In the light of the work of the Holy Spirit, our own righteousness must necessarily give way to the Sun of Righteousness, who was predestined Son of God in power according to the spirit of sanctification.

And yet, the mystery of our redemption in the Word made flesh is not now, nor was it ever, even before the dawn of time in the mind of God, meant to diminish us at his expense. That same good pleasure of the Father by which the Son was incarnate for our sake by the power of the Holy Spirit is also the good pleasure by which God has called us to share in bearing witness to so great a mystery. This is what Paul reminded the Romans, that his own call by God as apostle separated, set apart unto the Gospel of God, was no less in the heart of the Father than the foretelling of that same Gospel by the prophets or the lineage from David to Joseph and Mary. We may be called, predestined to glory in light of God's predestination of the Son to glory, but we are no less called out of darkness into light, no less called to share in the unending joyous brilliance that is eternal life with God.

This is why we pause this day to recall not just what occurred in global sense for the world through the Nativity of the Lord, but also, lest we forget in the splendor of the day to come, God's own desire for each of his elect that they, too, might share in that fulness of Triune life which is his unto the ages of ages.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Fourth Sunday of Advent

1 Corinthians 4:1-5 / Luke 3:1-6

Travel can be stressful at the best of times. During the holiday season, with so many expectations, both what we expect from others and what others are expecting from us, not to mention what we expect from ourselves, preparing for that travel can strain even the most patient among us. Couple this with the throng of other people, equally victims of stress, who are also trying to get somewhere for Christmas, and, for those of us going to or passing through more northern climes, the unpredictable behavior of winter weather — posing questions from the most trivial, such as what kinds of clothes to pack, to the more urgent, such as how to spend a night on a the floor of an airport terminal — and one sees why many people consider forgoing late December travel entirely.

Still, while they may consider it, most people in fact make the trip. They do so with an almost absolute assurance that, for all of their planning and all of their best schemes to avoid mishaps, something will arise contrary to our expectations. Knowing this, and knowing the stress, and knowing through it all that a little more planning on their part just might have made things easier, they go with hope of a joyous celebration of the birth of the Lord with friends, family, and those whom they love.

Our journey to Christ's appearing at the end of days is not much different, or at least it should not be. We who have been called by God to bear witness to the saving work of the Word made flesh and born in a cave in Bethlehem are held to rather high expectations. Here now it is required among the dispensers of the mysteries of God that a man be found faithful. Even so, as St Paul reminds us, just how faithful we have managed to be, or even how faithful we are right now, is not clear even to the just and the elect. There will be in Christ's coming so much glory and wonder, beyond any of our expectations, and there is now in what we imagine to be our faithful witness something of betrayal, that even St Paul himself could say, For I am not conscious to myself of anything: yet I am not hereby justified. Even so, even knowing that his witness to the Lord may well be wide of the mark, Paul urges both himself and us to go forward and, as did John the Baptist, he exhorts us to prepare the way of the Lord: make straight His paths.

Our task as we bear witness to him who was born in Bethlehem is not to have said everything perfectly, to have filled valleys, levelled mountains, and straightened crooked paths so perfectly such that none could mistake the coming of the Lord. Such a task is beyond us. It is rather the Lord himself in his glorious appearing who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then every man shall have praise from God. In fact, it is because we know that in seeing him, in greeting him upon his return, having made the best witness we know, repenting of those faults both known and hidden in darkness, that we will be able to greet him in joy. Like the holiday traveller who longs to endure what has passed well beyond his control for the sake of those he longs to see, our Advent travel sends us on a journey to greet the one whose coming is certain, who will not delay, and in whom all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Let us not ask, then, how well we have kept our Advent. Let us go forward, rather, into the winter's darkness, and without worrying to justify or accuse ourselves, let us rush forward to greet in the dew from above the Righteous one of God!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Third Sunday of Advent

Philippians 4:4-7 / John 1:19-28

Let your modesty be known to all men. 

The twelfth-century English chronicler Henry of Huntingdon tells a story, unknown in earlier chronicles and so perhaps apocryphal, of the modesty, the humility of the eleventh-century king Cnut. Today Cnut is not so well known outside of more limited circles, eclipsed by the events of 1066, but in his day he was a force to be reckoned with. A Danish king of both Viking and Polish descent — his father Sweyn Forkbeard of the line of kings chiefly responsible for the unification of Denmark, his mother the daughter of Mieszko I, the founder of the Polish state — Cnut came to rule not only Denmark, but also Norway, England, and part of Sweden, could number Scotland, Wales, and parts of Ireland among his vassals, and maintained a happy alliance with Normandy and Poland. He was the undisputed master of northern Europe, and a key figure in the politics of the eleventh century. In short, Cnut had every reason to be proud of his achievements and to demand respect and praise from both peers and subjects.

However, according to Henry's chronicle, Cnut one day ordered a chair to be brought to the sea shore. There the king sat, and before his courtiers, he ordered the tide and its waves to halt and to leave his feet dry. The sea, of course, continued in its normal way, soaking not only his feet, but the bottom of the royal robe. This great and fearful king then proclaimed, for all to hear, "Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws." Henry then tells us that the king removed his golden crown, setting it atop a crucifix, and he never wore it again.

Whether we believe the story to be true or not, it might strike us as a bit too staged. We may suspect that Cnut was looking for some political leverage from his show of piety. After all, might it not seem that, had Cnut truly been humble, he would not have made such a show of his humility? Are not humility and modesty the kinds of virtues that need precisely to keep a low profile without being contradicted in the very act of making of them a public display?

While such a view may seem reasonable, it is in fact mistaken. We can make two kinds of errors concerning our worth. On the one hand, we can think too much of ourselves, hold a false impression of our talents, capacities, and importance, and we can demand the rest of the world to do the same. On the other hand, out of a misdirected sense of modesty, we might always try to keep a low profile, not merely to acknowledge our limits, but even more hope and pray that we never need to let anyone else see the ways in which we fall short. We might, that is, fail to engage the world with the means God has given us, thinking he ought to have given us different means instead, and so leave ourselves and the rest of the world deprived of precisely those goods which God has entrusted to the world through our agency, our contribution.

This is why we must engage fully, publicly, without fear of the world coming to know not only who we are what we can do, but perhaps even as much if not more who we are not and what we cannot do, while all the same never failing to fulfill the mission which God has given us. This was the modesty of John the Baptist. No wilting violet or wallflower, John was clearly unafraid to proclaim without ceasing the coming of the Kingdom and the need for universal repentance. At the same time, he was happy, without hesitation, to clarify the limits of his own task in that proclamation. Three times John denied without hesitation the loftier titles the priests and Levites sought to pin upon him: the Christ, Elijah, the Prophet. In the same breath he unashamedly announced his divine mandate — I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord — and the altogether limited character of his ministry — I baptize with water: but there hath stood one in the midst of you, Whom you know not. The same is He that shall come after me, Who is preferred before me: the latchet of Whose shoe I am not worthy to loose. In short, John the Baptist let his modesty be known before all men.

This is the modesty to which Paul exhorts us, the modesty which neither asserts false claims of one's own power and so becomes needlessly solicitous of the world, nor recedes from engaging the world out of fear of exposing one's limits and faults. Rather, this is the modesty which, kept in heart and mind by the peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding, has no fear to expose as freely limit and defect as power and excellence, so long as the Lord Jesus Christ might be better known and loved. This is the modesty of King Cnut, the modesty of John the Baptist, and the modesty to which every Christian is called, until God stir up his might, and come to save us.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Second Sunday of Advent

Romans 15:4-13 / Matthew 11:2-10

What went you out into the desert to see?

When we go to the coffee shop for a cappuccino or a slice of cake, what are we hoping to get? Something warm and tasty to drink, one would imagine, or something sweet and moist to please our taste buds and fill that little space, real or imagined, in our stomachs. When we go to a bar for a drink, or two, or more, what do we seek? The warmth of heart God promised us in the gift of wine, one would hope, and perhaps the joy of the company of others likewise comforted. For these and so many other things we crave and seek, there is or at least can be a perfectly laudable reason, and we can succeed in having our desires fulfilled without derailing our better and broader purposes.

Unhappily, such is often not the case. We seek an elegant cup of coffee not to relax, to warm up, or to wake us up for the morning or mid-afternoon, but for the elegance of it all, the brand, the price tag. We eat the cake because we crave other things in, with, and for our bodies that we refuse ourselves directly, but feed the craving nonetheless askew. We drink to forget, to numb ourselves, thinking our liquid happiness will be a sufficient surrogate for ending our anxieties when sober. We may even seek out things which are not and can never be wholesome for us — titillating gossip, anonymous pairings, images easily found and indulged on the computer, corners cut at the workplace. When we do so, what do we expect to find?

For those without the light of Christ, perhaps the darkness of sin is enough to delude them, even if culpably, that in the coffee, the cake, the bottle, or the unkind word, there really is and can be happiness. They may be so deluded, but they do not remain so for long. However, for those of us who bear within ourselves the light of Christ, what do we hope to find in these distractions? Happiness? Fulfillment? We know that those are only to be found elsewhere, and only by means more suitably wrapped in sackcloth than in fine garments, by paths leading not to the palaces of kings, but to Herod's prison or to Golgotha.

All the same we find ourselves confused. We turn to the comfort of the Scriptures that we might have hope, but all too often these words written for our learning leave us cold and dry. When we turn away from the Scriptures, we may find a temporary solace more easily gained, but how quickly it passes, and with its passing comes the realization that we have taken another step away from the God of patience and of comfort. Why? Why to the words of holy Writ fail to give us comfort? Why do we prefer to waste our time with useless distractions?

The joy of the Scriptures, like all joys, is an acquired taste. It is acquired fundamentally by grace, of course, and so comes to us as gift, but it can be either cultivated or not. The more and more we accustom our souls to find comfort in lesser things, whether legitimate in right proportion or contrary to our good, the less God's inspired word, the less God himself will give us delight. Seen directly, unveiled in the beatific vision, of course, we will have no other desire, but on our journey, God can oddly enough seem like a relative good. He is not, after all, as tasty as a slice of chocolate cake, or at least his savor comes to us in an altogether different way.

This is why Advent is a season of penitence even as it is a season of waiting and expectation. Indeed, it is penitential precisely because we await God's coming. It is a time to remind ourselves of what is true for our whole life, namely, that we need to cultivate our spiritual palates and adjust our spiritual tastes so that, on Christ's return, we will find in him the fulfillment of our desires, and not their frustration.