Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A new and wondrous mystery.

Having returned from Midnight Mass and before going to bed, I would like to repeat the annual tradition of this blog by extending to all readers my prayerful best wishes for Christmas and by sharing a portion of a Nativity sermon preached by St. John Chrysostom:

I behold a new and wondrous mystery.

My ears resound to the Shepherd's song, piping no soft melody but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn.

The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory.

All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now, for our redemption, dwells here below; and he that was lowly is raised up by divine mercy.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven: she hears from the stars the singing of angelic voices; in place of the sun, she enfolds within herself on every side the Sun of Justice.

Ask not how - where God wills, the order of nature yields. He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed, and all things move in obedience to God.

This day He Who Is is born, and He Who Is becomes what He was not.

Christ is born! Glorify him! AMDG.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.

My 'official' Christmas post usually appears here in the middle of the night, after my return from Midnight Mass (which really does start at midnight; I accept no substitutes). Before that, for readers stopping in on Christmas Eve, here is the traditional German carol "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen," also known to many in English translation as "Lo, how a rose e'er blooming." The anonymous text dates from the late sixteenth century; it has been set to music various times, but the version heard here is the most famous, produced by Michael Praetorius in 1609. This performance by the Knabenkantorei Luzern uses Praetorius' setting with minor modifications by twentieth-century composer Carl Orff. The text follows, first in German and then in English translation:
Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,
aus einer Wurzel zart,
wie uns die Alten sungen,
von Jesse war die Art
Und hat ein Blümlein bracht
mitten im kalten Winter,
wohl zu der halben Nacht.

Das Röslein, das ich meine,
davon Jesaia sagt,
ist Maria die reine
die uns das Blümlein bracht.
Aus Gottes ew'gem Rat
hat sie ein Kind geboren
Welches uns selig macht.

Das Blümelein, so kleine,
das duftet uns so süß,
mit seinem hellen Scheine
vertreibt's die Finsternis.
Wahr Mensch und wahrer Gott,
hilft uns aus allem Leide,
rettet von Sünd und Tod.


A rose has sprung up,
from a tender root.
As the ancients sang to us,
Its lineage was from Jesse.
And it has brought forth a little flower
In the middle of the cold winter
Well at midnight.

The rosebud that I mean,
Of which Isaiah spoke
Is Mary, the pure,
Who brought us the little flower.
Through God’s eternal will,
She has borne a child
Who makes us blessed.

The little flower, so small
That smells so sweet to us
With its clear light
Dispels the darkness.
True man and true God,
he helps us in our misfortune,
[and] saves us from sin and death.
Peace and good wishes to all. AMDG.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Two 'no's,' one 'yes,' and the Kingdom of God.

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Father Alexander Schmemann, a twentieth-century Orthodox theologian and longtime dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York. Father Alexander's words have been featured here before, notably at Christmas, during Lent, and at sundry points during the church year. As I have written before, two of Father Alexander's books have been particularly influential in my own life: his brief book on liturgical theology For the Life of the World and, to an even greater extent, his Journals. I won't say anything further about the writings of Alexander Schmemann in this post, beyond pointing you to to the text of his final sermon, given less than three weeks before his death.

As a second way of marking this anniversary, I would like to present The Spirit of St. Vladimir's, a television documentary about Father Alexander's life and legacy produced not long after his death. I believe that this film offers a good sense of what Alexander Schmemann was about, perhaps above all in these words from his son-in-law Father Thomas Hopko:
Father [Alexander] once summed up his worldview in the simplest way. "When I die," he said, "you can write my 'in memoriam' in one brief paragraph. You can say that my vision consisted in two 'no's,' one 'yes,' and eschatology - two 'no's,' one 'yes,' and the Kingdom of God." His first 'no' was to secularism in all its forms, to any attempt to define man and the world without reference to God. His second 'no' was to what Father often called 'religion' - by this he meant religion as one part of life, one sacred compartment, as opposed to all the rest considered as profane and worldly. "Christ did not come to bring religion," he would say. "Christianity is not religion. Christ brought the Kingdom of God, the righteousness, the peace, the joy in the Holy Spirit." And here we meet Father Alexander's 'yes' - 'yes' to Christ and the Church, 'yes' to Christ's church understood not as an institution or an organization or an agency of any sort, however helpful or laudable its purposes, but 'yes' to the Church as the sacramental presence in this world of the eternal life of the world to come. 'Yes' to the whole of God's creation, to all of life, as found and fulfilled in its God-given substance and purpose in Christ and in the Church.
On this thirtieth anniversary of Father Alexander Schmemann's repose, I hope that the legacy left in his writings will continue to bear fruit in the world. If this post leads one or two people to encounter his work for the first time, I believe that I will have done some good. AMDG.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Quómodo sedet sola cívitas.

A couple of days ago, I read the sad news that Inisfada, a historic Jesuit retreat house on Long Island, will be demolished in the coming days. As I related in this post from January 2007, Inisfada enjoyed a noteworthy place in American Catholic history: built in 1920 as a home for a wealthy pair of Catholic philanthropists, Nicholas and Genevieve Garvan Brady, the 87-room Tudor mansion called 'Inisfada' (apparently Gaelic for "Long Island") received such distinguished guests as Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII) before being given to the Society of Jesus in 1937. Initially used as a house of study for Jesuit scholastics, Inisfada was eventually converted into a retreat house and remained one until rising operating costs and a declining number of retreatants forced its closure earlier this year. Despite the protests of preservationists and opposition from many in the local community, the New York Province of the Society of Jesus sold the property for $36.5 million to a group of developers who remained consistently mum about their intentions but were widely expected to tear the old house down in order to replace it with densely-planted McMansions. With Inisfada's contents having been auctioned off and a demolition permit in hand, the developers now seem poised to do what everyone expected them to do all along.

I am the sort of person who appreciates beautiful old buildings and is sad to see them destroyed; I also made a number of retreats at Inisfada when I lived in New York, so I can't help but feel a personal connection to the place. I can't blame the New York Province Jesuits for closing the retreat house or for selling the property - for various reasons, they really couldn't afford to keep the place going - but I still regret the fact that some means could not be found to save Inisfada from the wrecking ball. This post is accordingly meant as a sort of elegaic tribute to a place that won't exist for much longer. I took the photos below while I was on retreat at Inisfada, while the text comes from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, as featured here previously in a post on the Office of Tenebrae.

Quómodo sedet sola cívitas plena pópulo : facta est quasi vídua dómina Géntium : princeps provinciárum facta est sub tribúto.

How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the cities has become a vassal.

Plorans plorávit in nocte, et lácrimæ ejus in maxíllis ejus : non est qui consolétur eam ex ómnibus caris ejus : omnes amíci ejus sprevérunt eam, et facti sunt ei inimíci.

She weeps bitterly in the night, tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.

Migrávit Judas propter afflictiónem, et multitúdinem servitútis : habitávit inter Gentes, nec invénit réquiem : omnes persecutóres ejus apprehendérunt eam inter angústias.

Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude; she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.

Viæ Sion lugent eo quod non sint qui véniant ad solemnitátem : omnes portæ ejus destrúctæ : sacerdótes ejus geméntes : vírgines ejus squálidæ, et ipsa oppréssa amaritúdine.

The roads to Zion mourn, for none come to the appointed feasts; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her maidens have been dragged away, and she herself suffers bitterly.

Facti sunt hostes ejus in cápite, inimíci ejus locupletáti sunt : quia Dóminus locútus est super eam propter multitúdinem iniquitátum ejus : párvuli ejus ducti sunt in captivitátem, ante fáciem tribulántis.

Her foes have become the head, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Alma Redemptoris Mater.

For many of you the Season of Advent begins this weekend, and with it a new liturgical year. Advent began for me yesterday afternoon when I opened the book seen in this photo, set it on my lap, and began to pray. Readers who regularly pray the Divine Office will probably also be familiar with the ritual I enacted before I set out to pray vespers, a ritual always repeated when switching volumes of the breviary: resetting the ribbons to make sure that they're all in the right place. Of course, some of you may not bother with ribbons any longer, if you've moved to one of the various electronic versions of the breviary; those who know me won't be surprised to learn that I still think there is something important about actually praying the office out of a book, and I suspect that an important facet of that experience would be lost if one didn't have to fuss with the ribbons once in a while, making sure that everythng is in the right place.

For your edification on the First Sunday of Advent, here is the Marian antiphon appointed for use at Compline from today until Candlemas, the Alma Redemptoris Mater. This is a very old hymn; it is attributed to an eleventh-century German scribe with the wonderful moniker of Hermannus Contractus ("Herman the Cripple"), who took his inspiration from older sources rooted deep in the tradition of the Church Fathers. Here is the Latin text, together with a nineteenth-century English translation by John Henry Newman:
Alma Redemptoris Mater, quae pervia caeli
Porta manes, et stella maris, succurre cadenti,
Surgere qui curat, populo: tu quae genuisti,
Natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem
Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore
Sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere.


Kindly Mother of the Redeemer, who art ever of heaven
The open gate, and the star of the sea, aid a fallen people,
Which is trying to rise again; thou who didst give birth,
While Nature marvelled how, to thy Holy Creator,
Virgin both before and after, from Gabriel's mouth
Accepting the All hail, be merciful towards sinners.
Readers seeking a more literal modern translation can find one here. For my part, I still haven't reached the point where I can recite this hymn without remembering how I first learned of its existence, in a high school English class in which we read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The Alma Redemptoris Mater features prominently in "The Prioress's Tale," in which a young boy hears the hymn and is so captivated by the tune that he sets out to learn it and sings it each day on the way to school. I won't say anything more about "The Prioress's Tale," beyond noting that the tale does not end well and that it is not for the faint of heart.

Advent is a twofold time of preparation: it is first and most obviously a time of preparation for Christmas, but it is also a time of preparation for Christ's second coming - a coming which we cannot fully anticipate but which, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, "is nearer to us now than when we first believed" (Rom 13:11). Let us take the best possible advantage of this time of preparation - this "time for rousing," as Alfred Delp put it - and let us not hesitate to make our own the prayer expressed in the Alma Redemptoris Mater: "Kindly Mother of the Redeemer . . . aid a fallen people, which is trying to rise again . . . [and] be merciful towards sinners." AMDG.