Thursday, May 30, 2013

Corpus Christi.

In the liturgical calendar of the Latin Church, the Feast of Corpus Christi is traditionally celebrated on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday. Though Corpus Christi is transferred in many dioceses to the following Sunday - that is, to this coming weekend - I'm going to take advantage of the traditional date to say something about this very important feast.

The timing of the Feast of Corpus Christi is not accidental. As a celebration of the institution of the Eucharist and as an affirmation of the Church's belief in the Real Presence, Corpus Christi is in some sense a reprise of Holy Thursday, which is why it makes sense to celebrate the feast on this particular day of the week. While the festive character of Holy Thursday is tempered somewhat by the penitential nature of Holy Week, the fact that Corpus Christi comes after the conclusion of the Easter Season gives today's feast a pride of place in the liturgical calendar that it would not otherwise enjoy. Given the place of the Eucharist in the life of the Church, it seems appropriate for the Body of Christ to have a feast all its own - and that is precisely what Corpus Christi offers.

As a feast focused on the Christ's gift of himself in the Eucharist, Corpus Christi challenges Roman Catholics to reflect more deeply on the importance of this central mystery of the faith. If we take the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist seriously, if it should be hard for us not to regard the Eucharist as the very center of our lives. One Catholic who understood this point very well was Flannery O'Connor, who had the following to say in a 1955 letter reproduced in The Habit of Being:
I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. [Bowden] Broadwater. . . . We went at eight and at one, I hadn't opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. . . .

Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater [i.e., Mary McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the 'most portable' person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, 'Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.' That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable."
What does it really mean to affirm that the Eucharist is "the center of existence for me" and that "all the rest of life is expendable"? How many of us can make this affirmation with sincerity? I suspect that many of us who unhesitatingly affirm belief in the Real Presence would nonetheless have to admit that the Eucharist is not really the center of our lives. Even if we receive the Eucharist very regularly - and perhaps even daily - we can still stubbornly refuse the demands that the sacrament places upon us; we can easily fall into the routine of frequent communion without being open to the grace that Christ offers when he comes to us in a most humble and unassuming means.

I have just suggested that receiving the Eucharist places certain demands upon us. To provide a sense of what I mean by this, I would like to quote once again some words from Father Robert Taft, S.J. that I first shared on this blog a number of years ago:
. . . Liturgical celebrations are celebrations of the entire body of Christ, and the main celebrant of the liturgy, so to speak, is Christ himself. But the point of liturgy is that we are supposed to become what we celebrate. The purpose of the Eucharist isn’t to change bread and wine into Jesus Christ, it’s to change you and me into Jesus Christ – that’s what it’s all about. We are supposed to become the word of comfort and forgiveness, we are supposed to become the bread of life for the world, we are supposed to become the healing oil – and by 'we,' I don’t mean just the ordained, [but] all Christians. So there’s no possibility of separating liturgy and spirituality.

Liturgy is simply the mirror of what we are supposed to be, so that when we leave the liturgical assembly, we are supposed to go out and be what it is that we celebrate. That’s why St. Paul never once uses sacral terminology, like 'sacrifice,' 'offering,' 'liturgy,' 'priesthood' and so forth for anything except Christian life in Christ. What we do in church is simply the initiation into, and the feeding, and the restoration, if it’s lost by sin, and the intensification through preaching and the sacraments of what we’re supposed to be. If we don’t become it, we might as well stay in bed on Sunday morning, because what we’re doing is just a comedy.
In offering us his own body and blood under the appearance of bread and wine, Jesus Christ offers us the very food of salvation - a source of spiritual sustenance which we hope will help us to become citizens of heaven. If we really want this to happen - that is, if we expect the Eucharist to help us to get to heaven - we must allow our reception of the sacrament to inwardly transform us and to change the way in which we live our lives. In other words, as Father Taft would put it, we must be willing to "become what we celebrate," allowing our experience of Eucharistic communion to have a tangible effect on our lives outside of church.

As we celebrate Corpus Christi, let us not neglect the opportunity that this feast offers us to examine our consciences. In what ways can we become more open to the mystery that we celebrate in this feast? How can we make the effects of our sharing in Christ's body and blood more visible in our daily lives? How can we more truly "become what we celebrate"? AMDG.

The photo that illustrates this post was found here.

Monday, May 27, 2013

For Memorial Day.

In the second of two posts marking today's Memorial Day holiday, here is an appropriate video that also happens to make me nostalgic for the days before 24-hour television. Many readers will remember that it used to be the norm for TV stations in the United States and elsewhere to end the broadcast day with a 'sign off' sequence that concluded with a recording of the national anthem accompanied by suitably patriotic imagery. I'm happy that many of the old sign-off sequences are preserved on YouTube, giving nostalgists like me an opportunity to relive a part of the past; at the same time, I can't help but regret that the juvenile night owls of our day will not have the experience of watching TV until the broadcast day ended with a patriotic send-off.

The sign-off sequence featured here is one that I never saw growing up (the one that I saw most often featured the Blue Angels flying over distinctively American landscapes) but I think it may be the best of the genre: the historical montage ending with the Moon landing is great, but I'm also very taken with the particularly elaborate arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner," complete with trumpets. On this Memorial Day, I offer this video as a token of my respect and appreciation for all members of the United States Armed Forces who have given their lives in the service of their country. AMDG.

In our youth our hearts were touched with fire.

In the first of two posts marking today's Memorial Day holiday, I would like to share some excerpts from a great and perhaps insufficiently-remembered address given by the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in 1884. A Civil War veteran himself, Holmes made these remarks a year and a half into his service as an Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. After twenty years as a member of the Supreme Judicial Court - including two as Chief Justice - Holmes was named to the United States Supreme Court by President Theodore Roosevelt, serving as Associate Justice until his retirement from the bench at the age of ninety in 1932. Speaking to a group of fellow veterans at a Memorial Day gathering, Holmes began with a question that is still pertinent today: 'Why celebrate Memorial Day?':
Not long ago I heard a young man ask why people still kept up Memorial Day, and it set me thinking of the answer. Not the answer that you and I should give to each other-not the expression of those feelings that, so long as you live, will make this day sacred to memories of love and grief and heroic youth - but an answer which should command the assent of those who do not share our memories, and in which we of the North and our brethren of the South could join in perfect accord.

So far as this last is concerned, to be sure, there is no trouble. The soldiers who were doing their best to kill one another felt less of personal hostility, I am very certain, than some who were not imperilled by their mutual endeavors. I have heard more than one of those who had been gallant and distinguished officers on the Confederate side say that they had had no such feeling. I know that I and those whom I knew best had not. We believed that it was most desirable that the North should win; we believed in the principle that the Union is indissoluable; we, or many of us at least, also believed that the conflict was inevitable, and that slavery had lasted long enough. But we equally believed that those who stood against us held just as sacred conviction that were the opposite of ours, and we respected them as every men with a heart must respect those who give all for their belief.

The experience of battle soon taught its lesson even to those who came into the field more bitterly disposed. You could not stand up day after day in those indecisive contests where overwhelming victory was impossible because neither side would run as they ought when beaten, without getting at least something of the same brotherhood for the enemy that the north pole of a magnet has for the south, each working in an opposite sense to the other, but each unable to get along without the other. As it was then, it is now. The soldiers of the war need no explanations; they can join in commemorating a soldier's death with feelings not different in kind, whether he fell toward them or by their side.

But Memorial Day may and ought to have a meaning also for those who do not share our memories. When men have instinctively agreed to celebrate an anniversary, it will be found that there is some thought of feeling behind it which is too large to be dependent upon associations alone. The Fourth of July, for instance, has still its serious aspect, although we no longer should think of rejoicing like children that we have escaped from an outgrown control, although we have achieved not only our national but our moral independence and know it far too profoundly to make a talk about it, and although an Englishman can join in the celebration without a scruple. For, stripped of the temporary associations which gives rise to it, it is now the moment when by common consent we pause to become conscious of our national life and to rejoice in it, to recall what our country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for the country in return.

So to the indifferent inquirer who asks why Memorial Day is still kept up we may answer, it celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiam and faith is the condition of acting greatly. To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an end worth reaching. More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhpas a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out. All that is required of you is that you should go somewhither as hard as ever you can. The rest belongs to fate. One may fall - at the beginning of the charge or at the top of the earthworks; but in no other way can he reach the rewards of victory.
After recalling some of his own experiences as a soldier and describing the last moments of some of his comrades who fell in battle, Holmes concluded his address by considering the collective impact of the War:
. . . the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us. But, above all, we have learned that whether a man accepts from Fortune her spade, and will look downward and dig, or from Aspiration her axe and cord, and will scale the ice, the one and only success which it is his to command is to bring to his work a mighty heart.

Such hearts - ah me, how many! - were stilled twenty years ago; and to us who remain behind is left this day of memories. Every year - in the full tide of spring, at the height of the symphony of flowers and love and life - there comes a pause, and through the silence we hear the lonely pipe of death. Year after year lovers wandering under the apple trees and through the clover and deep grass are surprised with sudden tears as they see black veiled figures stealing through the morning to a soldier's grave. Year after year the comrades of the dead follow, with public honor, procession and commemorative flags and funeral march - honor and grief from us who stand almost alone, and have seen the best and noblest of our generation pass away.

But grief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death - of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen , the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.
If you would like to read the rest of Holmes' address, click here. For a deeper sense of what Memorial Day means today, you can learn how some modern teenagers helped to preserve the memory of those who fell in the American Civil War by reading this piece by Brandon Liljenquist on the collection of Civil War photographs that he and his family donated to the Library of Congress in 2010. AMDG.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Pentecost and Ordinary Time.

In February, I wrote a bit about the problem with Ordinary Time. In a New Liturgical Movement post from Friday, Father Guy Nicholls of the Birmingham Oratory addresses the same topic in the particular context of the relationship between Ordinary Time and the Feast of Pentecost:
The transition to Ordinary time on the Monday after Pentecost is disjunctive. It is not simply the return to Ordinary time per se that jars, since that must happen at some time anyway. No, the problem that several of your [NLM] correspondents share with me is the sense that the first green Monday after Pentecost has come from nowhere. In addition to the abruptness of this transition, the ferial days which now follow Pentecost belong to an entirely disconnected sequence that was broken off before Lent and so has no token of continuity with what has immediately preceded it. The transition was formerly more intelligible since the Octave of Pentecost came quietly to an end on Ember Saturday, emerging easily in First Vespers of Trinity Sunday, the beginning of a new week and season, and a feast, indeed, which celebrated and contemplated the mysteries which were fulfilled in the descent of the Holy Spirit "leading the Church into all truth."

What is the effective result of the loss of the Pentecost Octave?

First, it has the most unfortunate effect of reducing Pentecost to a mere end point. Because it is now simply a single day at the conclusion of Paschaltide from which all that follows is discontinuous, Ordinary Time does not seem to succeed Pentecost, but to supplant it. Thus Pentecost now seems only to look backwards to Easter of which it is the concluding celebration, rather than both back to Easter and forwards towards “green time” representing the post-Pentecostal life of the Church until the Second Coming.

Secondly, this rupture and discontinuity is further increased by the nomenclature of "Ordinary Time". While from the designation of "Time after Pentecost" alone the Church might have posited a relationship to that feast (albeit in a different way from "Time after Easter" to Easter Day itself), there was indeed a more than merely nominal connection. Of course Paschaltide is more organically and thematically linked to Easter than is the whole "post Pentecosten" period to Pentecost. Nevertheless the correspondence between Time after Pentecost on the one hand and the entire era of the Church, endowed with the Spirit and awaiting the Parousia on the other, was formerly more manifest in this long "green" period of the Church Year. This was especially clear both at the outset of the season with the Mystery-contemplative feasts of Trinity and Corpus Christi, and at the very end on account of its eschatological Sunday Gospels.
To read the rest, click here. AMDG.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

In the second Adam the first is rescued.

I have lately been very silent on this blog, partly because of busyness and travel, but also because of a certain kind of writer's block. I do have a few posts in mind for the coming week, which I hope will compensate somewhat for my long silence. In the meantime, as Easter gives way to Pentecost on the Gregorian Calendar, here is an apposite paragraph that caught my eye this morning in a book that I've been reading, Oliver O'Donovan's Resurrection and Moral Order:
The meaning of the resurrection, as Saint Paul presents it, is that it is God's final and decisive word on the life of his creature, Adam. It is, in the first place, God's reversal of Adam's choice of sin and death: 'As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive' (1 Cor. 15:22). In the second place, and precisely because it is a reversal of Adam's decision to die, the resurrection of Christ is a new affirmation of God's first decision that Adam should live, an affirmation that goes beyond and transforms the initial gift of life: 'The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit' (15:45). The work of the Creator who made Adam, who brought into being an order of things in which humanity has a place, is affirmed once and for all by this conclusion. It might have been possible, we could say, before Christ rose from the dead, for someone to wonder whether creation was a lost cause. If the creature consistently acted to uncreate itself, and with itself to uncreate the rest of creation, did this not mean that God's handiwork was flawed beyond hope of repair? It might have been possible before Christ rose from the dead to answer in good faith, Yes. Before God raised Jesus from the dead, the hope that we call 'gnostic,' the hope for redemption from creation rather than for the redemption of creation, might have appeared to be the only possible hope. 'But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead . . .' (15:20). That fact rules out those other possibilities, for in the second Adam the first is rescued. The deviance of his will, its fateful leaning towards death, has not been allowed to uncreate what God created.
For more along these lines, you may want to pick up Resurrection and Moral Order. For more from me, check back on Monday, when I will hopefully have more to say. AMDG.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

The universal kingdom has been revealed.

As I did last year, I would like to offer prayerful greetings to those who celebrate the Feast of the Resurrection today in conformity with the Julian Paschalion. At the time of posting, I hope that readers who celebrate Easter today are (a) in church, (b) feasting, or (c) enjoying a good rest after (a) and (b). To get into the spirit of the Feast of Feasts, here is another video from St. Elias.

As I usually do in posts marking Easter, I would like to end by once again sharing the Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom:

Are there any who are devout and love God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward.

If any have come after the third hour,
let them with gratitude join in the Feast!

And those who arrived after the sixth hour,
let them not doubt; for they too shall sustain no loss.

And if any have delayed until the ninth hour,
let them not hesitate; but let them come too.

And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let them not be afraid by reason of their delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to those who came at the eleventh hour,
as well as to those who toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward.

Rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally, for the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry.

Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed death by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.

It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.

It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.

It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ, having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Christ is Risen! AMDG.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Paradise in a single moment.

Today is Good Friday according to the Julian Calendar, so here is the Exapostilarion from the Byzantine office of Matins for Great and Holy Friday - which is typically anticipated on the night of Holy Thursday - sung to Kievan chant at St. Elias Church in Brampton, Ontario. Here is the text in English:

The wise thief didst Thou make worthy of Paradise
In a single moment, O Lord,
By the wood of thy Cross.
Illumine me as well, and save me.

Earlier in the same service, one encounters the following antiphon, which neatly summarizes what Good Friday is all about:

Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross.
He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who in Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon His face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails.
The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear.
We venerate your Passion, O Christ.
Show us also your glorious Resurrection.

On his blog Glory to God for All Things, Father Stephen Freeman offers a reflection on the above words:
Its poetry is typical of the liturgical thought of the Fathers. The death of Christ is ironic – indeed – the whole of Christ’s ministry is ironic. Things are turned upside down. God becomes man so that man can become god – this is ironic beyond measure! But the Fathers also saw in this irony the hiddenness of the mystery of our salvation. A literal reading of the world – a straightforward approach to our salvation – would be expected and anticipated. There is nothing hidden within such an account. But the hiddenness of things is the nature of wisdom. Wisdom is for the one who seeks, the one who listens, the one who looks beyond the obvious.

And it is there that the Wisdom of God is revealed in all of its ironic glory: a King crowned with thorns; God wrapped in mockery and suspended from a tree! In our own lives this same wisdom continues. The way of life is found in the way of the Cross. He who loses his life saves it. The gospel commands can only be understood in this wise foolishness. Forgiving enemies is foolishness, yet is our only hope.
Prayers and good wishes for those who, like me, are spending the better part of today in church. AMDG.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The pope and the media.

In a piece published on Monday, veteran Vaticanista Sandro Magister takes note of a phenomenon that has been on my mind lately:
The popularity of Pope Francis is due to a large extent [to his] style of preaching and to the easy, widespread success of the concepts on which he insists the most - mercy, forgiveness, the poor, the "peripheries" - seen reflected in his actions and in his own person.

It is a popularity that acts as a screen for the other more inconvenient things that he does not neglect to say - for example, his frequent references to the devil - and that if said by others would unleash criticism, while for him they are forgiven.

In effect, the media have so far covered up with indulgent silence not only the references of the current pope to the devil, but also a whole series of other pronouncements on points of doctrine as controversial as they are essential.

. . .

On April 19, in his morning homily, he lashed out against the "great ideologists" who want to interpret Jesus in a purely human vein. He called them "intellectuals without talent, ethicists without goodness. And of beauty we will not speak, because they do not understand anything."

In this case as well, silence.

On April 22, in another morning homily, he said forcefully that Jesus is "the only gate" for entering into the Kingdom of God and "all the other paths are deceptive, they are not true, they are false."

With this he therefore reiterated that indispensable truth of the Catholic faith which recognizes in Jesus Christ the only savior of all. But when in August of 2000 John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger published precisely on this the declaration “Dominus Iesus," they were bitterly contested from inside and outside of the Church. While now that Pope Francis has said the same thing, everybody quiet.

On April 23, the feast of St. George, in the homily of the Mass with the cardinals in the Pauline Chapel, he said that "the Christian identity is a belonging to the Church, because to find Jesus outside of the Church is not possible."

And this time as well, silence. And yet the thesis according to which “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus," which he has reaffirmed, is almost always a herald of polemics. . .
To read the rest, click here. AMDG.