Category Archives: Feasts

David “Brought up the Ark”: The Assumption of Mary

Guido Reni (1638-9). Wikimedia Commons.

The ancient Ark of the Covenant that accompanied the Israelites during the Exodus of Egypt until the Babylonian conquest, has long been understood in the mind of the Church as a symbolic type of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Made of wood and gilded in gold, the ancient Ark of the Old Covenant bore the Presence of God in spirit, while in a far more excellent manner, Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant bore within her womb the very Presence of God made flesh in the Person of Jesus the Word Incarnate. This is saying nothing of the extraordinary dwelling which God had made in Mary’s soul which was “full of grace”.

A Central Theme

It is no wonder then, why for the Solemnity of the Assumption of Our Lady, a holy day of obligation, both first readings concern the Ark of the Covenant. The vigil Mass, taken from I Chronicles 15, and Mass during the day, from the Book of Revelation (chps. 11 and 12).

The first reading for the Vigil Mass concerns the historical occasion when for the first time David brought the Ark of the Covenant into the city of Jerusalem. The same occasion is described in 2 Samuel 6, painting a broader picture of this festive occasion. We’ll direct our focus to this.

Take 1: Bringing Up the Ark

King David has conquered Jerusalem and has arranged the Levites (the priestly tribe) to process into Jerusalem from the house Abinidab, amidst great jubilation, with the Ark at this stage of the journey being carried along on a “new cart” by a set of oxen. In the words of the Scripture:

“And David and all the house of Israel were making merry before the LORD with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.” (2 Sam 6:5).

Along the way, the oxen stumble, and Abinidab’s son, named Uzzah, stretches out his hand to stop the Ark falling, and as a consequence of breaking a divine command meets his untimely end with a little aid (okay… more than a little aid) from above. There’s no time to go into that now, as that’s an article of its own. Yet feel free to see the relevant footnote.[1]

Anyway… the party kind of dies at this point. Well… sudden deaths as a result of divine smack-downs do tend to have this affect. Hence David gets upset at God — he probably liked the guy … he maybe even had dinner plans that evening with the fella. Oh well. So feeling like God’s being a bit of a kill-joy, he names the place “Perez-uzzah”, meaning “to break…” or “to burst out against Uzzah,” and being fearful of God and His Ark, David decides to hit stall on the procession, choosing to keep the Ark outside of Jerusalem at the House of Obededom.

Obededom’s Place

The Ark remains at the House of Obededom for three months — paralleling the three months the pregnant Virgin Mary stayed at her cousin Elizabeth’s house. When the word reaches David that “The LORD has blessed the household of Obededom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” (2 Sam 6:12a), he decides to fetch the Ark and bring it into Jerusalem. He is reminded of God’s merciful goodness and doesn’t want to miss out on God’s blessings!

Take 2: Bringing Up the Ark

 “So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obededom to the city of David with rejoicing” (2 Sam 6:12b).

The key word is the Hebrew word וַיַּעַל (vay-ya-al)[2] which the RSV translates as “[he] brought up” — with the root word עָלָה (alah) itself meaning “to go up, ascend, climb”.

Allegory Alert!

Much like Spider Man’s spider-sense our Catholic ‘spiritual-sense’ should be tingling at this moment. We have the imagery of the Ark and the language of ‘bringing up’ and ‘ascending’. Here then is an allegorical allusion to Mary’s Assumption. For it was Jesus, the Son of David by royal lineage, and the New and Eternal David in the sense of being the King of heaven and the entire universe, who by His divine power “brought up” the New Ark of the Covenant — the most sacred body and soul of Mary — into the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev 21:2) to be at His side forever. Doing so with the greatest rejoicing — not only Jesus, but all of heaven, the angels and saints, who like the Levites with their cymbals and tambourines, made festivity as this New Ark was assumed into heaven.

David Busts-Some-Moves

The narrative continues to describe how before the Lord present in the Ark, David danced “with all his might” girded with nothing but “a linen ephod” — so that he was nearly naked.

With the phrase “danced… with all his might” one can almost imagine David’s dancing as being nothing short of ecstatic. Such was David’s intense feeling of liberated freedom, a stark (pun intended) contrast with the fear he had before that stopped him from bringing the Ark into Jerusalem.

This serves as a type of the soul in Christ, whose servile fear of God is washed away by the Spirit of God, and who in turn has become a liberated child of God, free in the Spirit, and confident to the point of crying “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15).

The role of the Ark in facilitating David’s ecstatic response cannot be stressed enough, since the Lord’s Presence, in the context of the Ark’s ascent towards Jerusalem forms the focal point of the whole narrative. This highlights the important role which Mary plays in the life of the Christian. It is only Mary who can truly bring the confident freedom of the children of God to its full maturation. For she is after all the Mother of Jesus, and thus of God, and in turn of us — the children of God.

 

Michal—She No Like David’s Groove

Continuing the narrative, we read:

“As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.” (2 Sam 6:16).

Later on in the story we are told how Michal, one of the wives of David, never bore a child until the day of her death. Not all infertility is a literal curse brought about by personal sin by any means! But in this case it was. She was cursed by barrenness, and we are to understand from the Scripture that this happened as a consequence of judging David for his jubilant act of praising God. For in her eyes, this wild dancing went against the civility of David’s royal dignity and offended her own sensibilities, and thus undermined her respect for her husband.

Without True Devotion to Mary: Spiritual Barrenness

The barrenness suffered by Michal, besides illustrating the spiritual consequence of judging others and attributing evil to what is good, serves to demonstrate the spiritual repercussions a lack of Marian devotion and a refusal to honor and welcome Mary and the mystery of the Assumption into our lives can have. Michal wasn’t struck dead, nor was she exiled from the Kingdom of Israel — she was made to be barren. Sure, she was made barren because she judged wrongly, but this only occurred because she wasn’t focused on the Lord and His Presence which was coming into Jerusalem, and this in turn was a result of her failure to reverence and failure to recognize the worth of the Ark of the Covenant. Instead, being hardly captivated by the Ark, she lost sight of God’s Presence, and so came to nit-pick on her husband.

Likewise, a failure to reverence the true Ark of God, Mary the Mother of God — not to worship, but to honour as did Jesus, and as did David in type — may or may not lead one into becoming a terribly judgemental Christian, but it certainly will lead to a relative spiritual barrenness. That is, a barrenness which is not absolute, but relative in the sense of limiting ‘what could be’ compared to if we were devoted to Mary. Such relative spiritual barrenness is an automatic spiritual consequence of failing to welcome with loving fervor the Ark of the New Covenant into one’s life, by way of devotion to Mary.

To put it more simply and in the positive sense, a true devotion to Mary can only make one’s spiritual life more fruitful. In the words of St. Louis De Montfort:

When the Holy Spirit, [Mary’s] spouse, finds Mary in a soul, He hastens there and enters fully into it. He gives Himself generously to that soul according to the place it has given to his spouse. One of the main reasons why the Holy Spirit does not work striking wonders in souls is that He fails to find in them a sufficiently close union with His faithful and inseparable spouse.[3]

With True Devotion to Mary: Spiritual Fruitfulness

On this festive occasion of the Solemnity the ancient example of David spurs us on to increase our love and appreciation of Mary, by which means we can only ever grow deeper in union with God, sinking deeper into His Presence. A Presence which is Fruitfulness Itself, and which actualizes through Mary the Ark of God. For she was chosen to bring forth the fruit of God’s Son in the flesh, and likewise, with the Holy Spirit, Mary’s role extends itself to spiritually bringing forth the fruits of grace within our souls.

Bringing Up the True Ark

Just as Jesus brought up Mary to heaven, assuming her body and soul into the New Jerusalem, may we too, by uniting ourselves by faith with this living reality of the Assumption, the light and hope of every Christian, allow our Lord to bring up this Sacred Ark into the Jerusalem of our souls, households. communities and parishes. For then like Obededom, our exterior homes, but more importantly our interior homes will be blessed, along with all our words and deeds — sanctified by God’s Presence working powerfully through Mary; and like David we will be compelled to interiorly dance in the joyful confidence that we are children of God called to share in the splendor of the Risen Christ which shines most brilliantly in Mary herself.

“So David and all the house of Israel”—Jesus in the Assumption, and His Church figuratively in devotion on this Feast Day— “brought up the ark of the LORD”—the Blessed Virgin Mary— “with shouting, and with the sound of the horn.” (2 Sam 6:15).

 

[1] It may seem harsh, and it clashes with our middle-class “nice” conception of God, however Uzzah simply reaped the automatic consequence of going against the law which forbid anyone except the chosen Levites from handling the Ark. In the same manner, one who goes against the law of aerodynamics in faultily repairing an aeroplane will inevitably lead to the crashing of the aeroplane. God is no more to blame for the latter, than he is for the former. After all, God is good and merciful, and is incapable of doing anything evil, even if by our limited human perspective, it seems to be the contrary. Besides, if — and God only knows — Uzzah did so out of good-will and without really thinking about God’s command, there is no reason to doubt his salvation.

[2] With conjunction “and” included.

[3] Louis de Montfort, True Devotion to Mary, Part I, 36.

This article was originally published on the author’s personal blog (2018), with possible alterations apparent in this edition.

Featured image: Domenico Gargiulo (c. 1609 – c. 1675), David bearing the ark of testament into Jerusalem  / PD-US

Joachim

Guest post by Br. Gregory Liu, OP.

Just a few days ago, I heard about the death of a brother, a Dominican priest, Fr. Joachim Li, OP who on June 27th, died at the young age of 32. While enjoying his day off at the seaside in Rome, he lost his life successfully rescuing and saving two swimmers from drowning. Fr. Joachim’s heroic death reminded me of the story of his patron saint, St. Joachim Royo, OP, a Dominican missionary martyr in China. As Fr. Joachim gave up his life to save the two swimmers, St. Joachim gave up his life to save the souls of many.

St. Joachim Royo, OP was born around 1691 in Spain. In 1708, he joined the Dominican Order in Valencia. Filled with the zeal to preach the Gospel to the end of the world, he arrived in Manila in 1713. There he finished his studies and was ordained as a priest. St. Joachim arrived in China in the spring of 1715. In the missionary territories of southeastern China, he not only baptized many, but he formed the newly baptized converts into Dominican tertiaries and lay catechists. During the persecution of the early Qing Dynasty, he went into hiding in the wilderness and caves. Only in the cover of the night, was he able to administer sacraments for the faithful. While in prison, he continued his penitential practices, even going as far as asking the prison guards to whiplash him! He finally gave the ultimate witness of faith in Fujian, China in 1748. St. Joachim’s heroic life is just one story out of those of the 108 martyrs in China (33 of which were missionaries), whom we commemorate on July 9.

Even now, there are countless missionaries making all kinds of sacrifices, even risking their lives, so that people may hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How can you help? First of all, you can pray for them. As St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote in 1896, to Fr. Adolphe Roulland, MEP, who was about to be sent to Sichuan, China,

“Distance can never separate our souls, even death will only make our union closer. If I go to Heaven soon, I shall ask Jesus’ permission to visit you in Sichuan, and we shall continue our apostolate together. Meanwhile I shall always be united to you by prayer…”

If you hear the Lord’s call to be a missionary yourself and go to Asia, please do not hesitate to contact us!

Brother Gregory Liu, OP works with the St. Francis Xavier Lay Missionary Society, which prepares and sends missionaries to spread the Good News throughout Asia, in the footsteps of the great Jesuit.

Image: 120 Martyrs of China

Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus

By guest writer Catherine Sheehan.

The image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is one of the most common images associated with Catholicism. Numerous Catholic churches and schools are named after the Sacred Heart and many churches contain an image or statue of the Sacred Heart.

But how often do we stop to think what the devotion to the Sacred Heart is actually all about? What was Christ communicating to us when He revealed His Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in the 17th century? Why did the Church establish a feast day devoted to the Sacred Heart and does this devotion still have relevance for us today?

For human beings, the heart symbolizes the very center of our being since it is the organ that keeps us alive by pumping blood around the whole body. It also symbolizes the depths of our feelings and therefore our capacity for love. We speak of being ‘heart-broken’ when something tragic happens to us, when someone we love dies, a friend betrays us or our love is rejected. When we desire to be close to others we refer to ‘speaking from the heart’ or having a ‘heart to heart’ conversation.

All of this tells us much about why Jesus desired a devotion to His Sacred Heart. He wanted to be close to us, to reveal to us the depths of His love for us, and to call us to respond to this love by loving Him in return and extending that love to others. Indeed He gave the commandment to His followers to ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15: 12).

Since St. John told us that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8), devotion to the Sacred Heart is nothing other than acknowledging and reinforcing this revelation of who God is, and asking us to enter more deeply into his love.

From 1673 to 1675, Our Lord appeared several times to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a Visitation nun, in the French town of Paray-le-Monial. The first apparition took place on 27 December 1673, the feast of St. John the Evangelist. Interestingly, it was St. John who was called the disciple ‘whom Jesus loved’, and who rested his head near Christ’s heart at the Last Supper (John 13: 23).

Christ showed St. Margaret Mary His Sacred Heart which was crowned with flames and a cross, and encircled by a crown of thorns. She also saw that His heart was pierced. This corresponds with the fact that Christ’s side was pierced with a lance when He hung on the cross (John 19:20).

Jesus expressed to St. Margaret Mary His desire that a devotion to His Sacred Heart be established and a feast day on the Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi.

As part of this devotion, Jesus asked that people receive the Holy Eucharist on the first Friday of each month for nine consecutive months, in honor of His Sacred Heart. This is known as the First Friday devotion.

The feast day of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus was officially established in 1765 and in 1899 Pope Leo XIII consecrated the entire world to the Sacred Heart.

In his encyclical on devotion to the Sacred Heart, Haurietis Aquas, Pope Pius XII wrote:

… Christ Our Lord, exposing His Sacred Heart, wished in a quite extraordinary way to invite the minds of men to a contemplation of, and a devotion to, the mystery of God’s merciful love for the human race … Christ pointed to His Heart, with definite and repeated words, as the symbol by which men should be attracted to a knowledge and recognition of His love; and at the same time He established it as a sign or pledge of mercy and grace for the needs of the Church of our times.

He further wrote: “The Church gives the highest form of worship to the Heart of the divine Redeemer.”

Let us celebrate the great feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus with particular fervor, since it announces to the world the unfathomable love and mercy of Jesus Christ. His Sacred Heart burns with love for us each and every day!

The 12 promises of Christ to those who have devotion to His Most Sacred Heart, as revealed to St Margaret Mary:

(1) I will give them all the graces necessary in their state of life.
(2) I will establish peace in their homes.
(3) I will comfort them in all their afflictions.
(4) I will be their secure refuge during life, and above all, in death.
(5) I will bestow abundant blessings upon all their undertakings.
(6) Sinners will find in My Heart the source and infinite ocean of mercy.
(7) Lukewarm souls shall become fervent.
(8) Fervent souls shall quickly mount to high perfection.
(9) I will bless every place in which an image of my Heart is exposed and honored.
10) I will give to priests the gift of touching the most hardened hearts.
(11) Those who shall promote this devotion shall have their names written in My Heart.
(12) I promise you in the excessive mercy of My Heart that My all-powerful love will grant to all those who receive Holy Communion on the First Fridays in nine consecutive months the grace of final perseverance; they shall not die in my disgrace, nor without receiving their sacraments. My divine Heart shall be their safe refuge in this last moment.

___

Catherine Sheehan is an experienced writer and a journalist with The Catholic Weekly.

The Visitation

Zephaniah 3:14-18, Isaiah 12:2-6, Luke 1:39-56

Hail MaryToday, the Church invites us to recall the visitation of our Blessed Mother (pregnant with Christ) to her cousin Elizabeth (pregnant with John the Baptist). This visitation cannot be overlooked because it reveals to us why Catholics have always believed that Mary is the NEW Ark of the Covenant. Consider these typologies from the Old to the New:

God the Holy Spirit overshadowed and then in-dwelled the Ark (Ex 40:34) 👉 The Holy Spirit came upon Mary and the Power of the Most High overshadowed her. (Lk 1:34)

David said: “How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Sam 6:10) 👉 Elizabeth said: “Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43)

David danced with all his might when the Ark arrived (2 Sam 6:13,14) 👉 John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary arrived (Lk 1:41).

Ark remained in the house of O’bede’dom for three months (2 Sam 6:11) 👉 Mary remained three months with Elizabeth (Lk 1:56).

Unless this is all purely coincidence, one can only conclude that the Catholics are correct. Mary was designated by God to be the New Ark of the Covenant carrying the Word into the world.

We must ponder deeply in our hearts what this means. In the Old Testament, the Ark was so perfectly pure that Uzzah was struck dead just for touching it. Think about it, that was the Old Testament. All Christians today believe that the New Testament brings the Old Testament to fulfilment. Which means Mary by logic, is much GREATER than the Old Ark.

Luke further substantiates this in the Magnificat:

“My soul MAGNIFIES the Lord, ALL generations will call me BLESSED!” (Lk 1:46,48).

Friends, let us all remember that our Blessed Mother’s role is and always will be to MAGNIFY the Lord (think of a magnifying glass).

Mary does not bring salvation, but she will ALWAYS bring us closer to her Son, that we can be assured of. I can personally testify to that. Since I’ve started devotion to Mary a few months ago, I have noticed changes in my life that are incredible and irrefutably due to Mary’s intercession. And the best part? I love Jesus so much more than I ever did before!

___

Originally posted on Instagram.

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Deuteronomy 4:32-40, Psalm 33, Romans 8:14-17, Matthew 28:16-20

CCC 234: “The Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the MYSTERY OF GOD in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the “hierarchy of the truths of faith.”

The Trinity, Andrei Rublev (1425)

Just let that sink in – the Holy Trinity is the MYSTERY OF GOD Himself.

In Matthew’s Gospel, he beautifully opens up with the Emmanuel Prophecy when the Angel told Mary that her son would be called Emmanuel (God is with us). At the end of the Gospel, Jesus fulfills this by literally telling us that He (God) WILL be with us, forever till the end of time! Many people miss this, but Matthew’s Gospel concludes on Jesus’s Divinity.

It is in this context that Jesus reveals His Triune Divinic nature when He commands all His followers to Baptize in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. For Catholics, we do this every day when we make the sign of the cross. We must not forget this Great Commission whenever we call upon the Holy Trinity.

I’d like to close with a fun fact: the word ‘Trinity’ is NOT found in the Bible. Instead, the Doctrine of the Trinity was written and declared infallibly by Pope Dionysius:

“The most sacred proclamation of the Church of God, making of it the Trinity, as it were, three powers and three distinct substances subsisting in one being… [Some heretics] proclaim that there are in some way three gods, when they divide the sacred unity into three substances foreign to each other and completely separate.” (A.D. 262)

Today, (thank God for this) all Christians accept this Sacred Tradition, which was hard fought for. The Doctrine of the Trinity is a prime example of why we need to recognize the Church as an infallible interpreter and why we can’t just rely on the Bible alone. After all, Jesus did leave us a Church, not a book!

___

Originally posted on Instagram.

Pentecost

Acts 2:1-11, Psalm 104, Galatians 5:16-25, John 20:19-23

Catholicism sprouted from Judaism. The Church has always promulgated that because well; Jesus chose to be born into a Jewish family and was faithful to the Jewish traditions of his time. So my Catholic friends, always be proud of your Jewish roots because its a sign of authentic historicity of our Faith!

The Jews had a cycle of feast days just like Catholics (Lev 23). Out of these, two have been brought over to the New Covenant in the Catholic Church:

Passover 👉 Easter

Feast of Weeks (Shebuoth) 👉Pentecost.

The word ‘Pentecost’ comes from the Greek ’50’, which means 50th day after Passover. This is why the Church celebrates it 50 days after Easter.

From a Jewish perspective, Pentecost was immensely important because it was one of the three pilgrimage feasts. (This meant that adult male Jews were required to go up to the temple and offer sacrifices on this day.) Why? Well, the Babylonian Talmud indicates that Pentecost was the day Moses received the Ten Commandments on Sinai.

Understanding this is crucial to draw the parallel to Luke’s account of ‘Tongues of Fire’ in Acts, because Exodus 19:16-18 describes how God also descended upon Sinai ‘ in fire’.

12 Tribes + Ark present (Ex 19) = 🔥

12 Apostles + Mary present (Lk 1:14) =🔥

Pentecost is thus an extremely important feast day for it marked the sign of a New Covenant. The Psalmist sings: ‘Lord, send out your spirit and renew the face of the earth!’ (Ps 104:30). An early Church Father comments:

“Now the Holy Spirit appeared in fire and in tongues because all those whom He fills He makes simultaneously to burn and to speak—to burn because of Him and to speak about Him. And at the same time He indicated that the Holy Church, when it had spread to the ends of the earth, was to speak in the languages of all nations.” (Ven. Bede, 8th Cent.)

___

Originally posted on Instagram.

Editor’s note: Today concludes the Octave of Pentecost, a beautiful tradition of Holy Mother Church.

The Spirit of Truth

Jesus said to His disciples: ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth who issues from the Father, he will be My witness. And you too will be witnesses, because you have been with Me from the outset. (John 15:26-27)

If the sight of rose petals falling in the Pantheon is something to behold, I wonder what beauty “tongues of Flame” descending onto the Apostles must have looked like. The change it brought: fear into fearlessness, doubt into conviction, sadness into joy. But it did not come at no cost… The Apostles were surrounded by enemies; never mind their Roman conquerors, what would their fellow men have done if they found out that they belonged to “the King Of The Jews?”

Yet despite all their faults, all these circumstances, all the uncertainty, they were faithful; they stayed in Jerusalem and waited. And so we come to the end of Easter with the Feast of Pentecost — the Advocate’s arrival; the birthday of the Church! The question is; just how much of a witness have I been to the Spirit within? If I am in a trying situation, what does the Holy Spirit instruct? What spirit moves within me?

___

Editor’s note: Today is Saturday in the Octave of Pentecost.

Easter Reflections and Movie Spoilers

We are still in the Easter season, a time to commemorate on the resurrection of Christ and reflect on its message of joy and hope.

I am a pessimist by temperament, so dwelling on the message of Easter is a challenge for me. I tend to see the negative side of things, and to predict the worst outcomes for every scenario. All the reassurance in the world that things will turn out well in the end seldom brings me comfort. It does not help that, indeed, so many bad things happen around the world, in the lives of people I know, and in my own life.

But deep down inside me, I want to believe that things will turn out well. This longing is inherent in every human being, even in die-hard pessimists like me.

For example, whenever a movie ends with the bad guys winning, most of us conclude or hope that there will be a sequel, even as we curse the movie makers for having built up our excitement for nothing. We do not want to believe in evil having the last word, even after having just seen it played out before our very eyes. So we stay in the cinema while the credits roll, hoping for a preview of the next movie installment where, we hope deep inside us, good will win again.

When Christ died on the Cross, it seemed as if evil had the last word. All of His disciples’ hopes seemed to have died with Him. But we Christians know what happened.

When we reflect on the Resurrection, we are not dealing with fiction but with fact. It is not my intention in this essay to go over all the arguments making the case that the resurrection of Christ is a historical fact, as entire books have already been written about them. It suffices to say, for now, that thousands of credible witnesses have attested to the Resurrection with their lives.

Neither is the Resurrection the end of the story, a glorious past event that will never be repeated. There are still sequels, and the sequels involve us. And because of the Resurrection, we already know the ending to the story – that it will be ultimately be happy, even if, every now and then, evil seems to be have the last word.

We must keep in mind that the Resurrection is real as we plod through the trials of living in this world. The prospect of the final triumph of good may seem remote. But Christ has already won the war for us. We show our belief in the Resurrection by tenaciously fighting Christ’s battles here on earth, when we practice hope by persevering in prayer, sacrifices, and good works.

The end may seem bleak but we do not give up hope. We have seen Christ already defeat sin and death. There may be more plot twists and cliff-hangers to come. But we know the story will end for those who are fighting on Christ’s side.

___

Image: PD-US

A Paschal Poem: Christ’s Guests

The Adoration of the Magi Morris & Co. tapestry design by Edward Burne-Jones
The Adoration of the Magi. Morris & Co. tapestry. Design by Edward Burne-Jones

When Love was hid within the crib
Wise men Heaven’s call did heed
Beneath the Star they traveled far
To seek the King of which was writ
That He should come to rule the world.
The Infant’s fingers lightly curled
About His mother’s drooping veil
As the old kings did gently kneel
Amidst the straw, to here adore
The Messiah, and implore
His solemn benediction
Proffering a sweet oblation
Of frankincense for the true God
And purest gold for our one Lord
With myrrh to spice the Sacrifice
They built for Him an edifice
Of profound praise within their hearts
And reluctantly, depart
Holding in sweet memory
The innocent visage of He
Who was to bring
Through suffering
The reign of Peace.

"Why seek ye the living among the dead?" St Luke 24 v5 Painting by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908)
“Why seek ye the living among the dead?”
St Luke 24 v5
Painting by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908)

When Love had sprung from the cold tomb,
The women came to anoint His wounds
Bearing myrrh; their hearts were gold
With sheer courage – they were bold
Enough to brave the guards
If fight they must with their pot-shards
They would not be unduly kept
Away from Him for Whom they wept.
As prayers like incense rose on high
In silence through the darkened sky
They found to their deep dismay
The body gone, the grave forlorn
Who had stolen Him away?
The angels came, in light arrayed
And as the women bowed and prayed
They turned to them, and softly said
Why seek ye the living among the dead?
He is not here, He is risen.
Cease ye now thy sad orisons.
The women rose, and brought the news
To brethren hiding from the Jews
Who did not believe their words
But Peter ran, with John ahead
And stooped to see, with bated breath
If Christ had truly conquered death
No words were needed then, their eyes
Saw He had opened Paradise.

So now we sing, to our God-King,
Let all earth and Heaven ring
He has triumphed evermore!
Let us bow down and adore
The Infant, Man and God in one
The Father’s sole obedient Son
Who for us Life has dearly won
‘Tis Love alone, when all is done
Who will call to us, and we
Should now strive ever to be
Worthy of the price He paid
And deliver ourselves undismayed
Into His presence, and adore
In profound peace forevermore.

___

Images: PD-US

St. Gregory of Nazianzus on the Cult of Numbers

About Gregory

Gregory the Theologian, (1408), Dormition Cathedral, Vladimir, Wikimedia Commons.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 326/330 – 390), nicknamed since antiquity as ‘The Theologian’, was a fourth-century bishop, born in the rural setting of modern-day central Turkey. He is venerated as a Father of the Church, and is one of the Cappadocian Fathers, along with Ss. Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa.

Gregory fought strenuously for spiritual orthodoxy, particular in relation to a doctrinal understanding of the Trinity, championing the Nicene perspective, and developing a unique Trinitarian language. He viewed the Nicene stance as a midday between the heretical extremes of Sabellianism and Arianism.[i]

Classically trained in rhetoric and philosophy, he is responsible for transposing Hellenism into the Early Church. In fact, “Gregory’s literary ability was regarded so highly by the learned connoisseurs of Byzantium that they ranked him with the great stylists of classical poetry and prose.” [ii] For example, Psellos (c. 1017 – 1028) describes Gregory’s style in glowing terms as embodying the gifts of figures such as Demosthenes, Pericles, Lysias and Herodotus, whilst outranking them, in wit, persuasive power, beauty and skill.[iii] He was even well regarded by Renaissance humanists for his literary prowess.[iv]

Gregory has left the Church with a large corpus of written works: letters, poems and orations. It is through his orations—speeches delivered in homilies and sermons, and polished and edited in his later life—that he has extended his greatest influence, both theologically and literarily.

Oration 42

Among his 44 orations is Oration 42—a Farewell Address; a kind of apologia directed at his flock at Constantinople upon his resignation. A resignation made for the purpose of quelling the dissensions and controversy surrounding his Canonically awry position in Constantinople. He thus stepped aside, to keep the peace.

The audience included the 150 bishops of the Eastern Church gathered for the First Council of Constantinople (381), and various rivals low and high. It is also addressed to the Nicaean faction in general. He is defending accusations against his style of ministry in Constantinople, whilst raising the banner of his Trinitarian faith. He says his farewells with a mix of sadness, joy, and satire, and leaves by throwing a few preacher-punches at the “great and Christ-loving city!” a descriptive term he calls unenlightened, while at the same time it is expressive of his hope of what could be.[v] Still, the tenderness of his delivery is undeniable—in Gregory is a pastor who loved his people.

The Cult of Numbers

The portion of this Oration I’d like to draw attention to is section 7, where Gregory alludes to a worldly, economic kind of religious way of thinking, that can be described as the cult of numbers. This can simply be understood to be a measuring of spiritual success and fruitfulness in Christian communities, based solely on numbers—on the population of a group in the Church or the Church as a whole. It is an outlook that focuses on the external of quantity, to the exclusion and neglect of the quality of such members. A quality defined by sound spirituality and doctrine, manifesting in holiness and love.

The Context of His Farewell

In the context of his Farewell Oration, he speaks to a church where the Nicene community has recently regained power from the Anti-Nicene’s; finally having the support of imperial policy on its side. It is “a people now grown from small to great, from scattered to well-knit, from a pitiable even to an enviable state”—and Gregory testifies to this increase as the work of God, the rich harvest won through his ministry with the support of his companions.[vi] Yet he does not praise the increase in numbers as the real reason to rejoice, but the increase in this people’s quality: a people who soundly “worship the Trinity”.[vii]

Gregory—God and Numbers

In the following extract Gregory shares what he thought he “heard God saying” (Or 42:8) in those days when the faithful adherents of the Trinity in Constantinople were a mere remnant, “tiny and poor” (Or 42:4), vastly outweighed by those who “wickedly divided” the Godhead in their false doctrines: many of whom, brought from darkness to light, falsehood to truth, now stand before Gregory as he speaks.

“But you build walls around me, and marble slabs and mosaic floors, long colonnades and porticoes; you glitter and shine with gold, spending it like water and gathering it up like sand, forgetting that faith camping in the open is worth more than the richest impiety, and that three-people gathered in the name of the Lord are worth more to God than tens of thousands who deny the divinity. Do you value the Canaanites more than Abraham, all by himself? Or the Sodomites more than Lot on his own? Or the Midianites more than Moses—though all of these were aliens and strangers? What of the three hundred of Gideon, who manfully lapped up the water, while thousands were rejected? What of Abraham’s household slaves, a few more than these in number, who pursued and defeated many kings and their armies of thousands of men, few though they were? And how do you understand this passage: ‘If the number of the children of Israel should become as the sand of the sea, only a remnant will be saved?’ Or this: ‘I have left for myself seven thousand men, who have not bent their knees to Baal.’ No this is not the solution—God does not delight in numbers![viii]

The Approach of a Spiritual Man

Gregory understood this Scripturally-derived lesson of God so very clearly. His understanding was applied in the way he went about his ministry. Faced with a tiny remnant Gregory did not conjure up systematic methods to increase his flock, with the mind of an accountant and tact of an administrator. Nor did he subject himself to human standards at the compromise of the Gospel message to gain sympathizers (Or 42:19). Nor did he play politics, to win members to his flock—siding with one faction against another, but he simply delineated between truth and falsehood, paying no regard to human groupings. And nor did he lord his authority over the Anti-Nicene’s in order to crush them, and consolidate the numbers of his Nicene-flock, when the tables turned in his camps’ favor, but rather he acted mercifully, to the point of being blamed for leniency by his very own.

For St. Gregory was a spiritual man, who saw things with a spiritual eye. Seeing success in the quality of his people, not in their numbers; to the point he even lost favor with much of his own due to his steadfastness to the Gospel of mercy. He knew what was at stake — “the salvation of the soul”— and saw his pastoral responsibility with a sharpness of vision: “to guard and protect his flock” but above all “by distributing the word” in teaching, example and the sacraments, which he calls “the first of our tasks” (Or 2:35).[ix]

In one of his poems he defends his Word-focused approach as a Bishop; an approach carried out from the motive of saving souls, not to increasing numbers for the sake of numbers:

You’ve been considering a bishop as you would an accountant, laying stress on mere rubbish, where I’ve been concerned with important issues. A priest should have one function and one only, the sanctification of souls by his life and teaching… Other matters he should relinquish to those skilled in them.[x]

Learning from Gregory

There is so much we can learn from St. Gregory on the cult of numbers. The lesson he understood so well, is perennially relevant to the Church in all its spheres: on the universal scale, the local parish scale, on the level of the religious community, and even to the microcosm of every youth, bible study or prayer group. The value of all of these is not weighed by the numbers of attendants or alleged adherents, but on the quality of the interior fruits of sound spirituality and doctrine, brought forth as the harvest of the Word; nourishing the real spiritual growth of its members, shown to be authentic by a visible and practical love.

It is easy for groups to become ‘accountant-minded’ and focus on numbers as the measure of spiritual success. Acting in ministry from the motive to “increase numbers,” and investing efforts to win “bums in seats.” Yet by focusing on numbers, we lose our focus of love—depersonalising the face of ‘the other’ into a mere number, thus losing sight of the face of Christ in our neighbour; and this is all a consequence of chasing after numbers instead of a deepened relationship with the Word and the lived proclamation of His Truth—a proclamation that reaches out to ‘the other’ as the image of God, not as the means to bump up a statistic.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus shows us that we need not focus on numbers, for “God does not delight in numbers!” but we need only focus on God the Trinity, seeking to increase the quality of the “tiny and poor” remnant in our midst—above all by seeking the Father, Son and Holy Spirit ourselves (in prayer, instruction and the sacraments); and this labour will be blessed by God who in time, will bring forth an increase far greater in quality and quantity, than we could ever achieve by our quest for greater numbers.

God did so in Constantinople in the fourth-century A.D., and He can do so again in our day; so long as we see like Gregory that our strength lies not in numbers, but in our God, and the unconditional Love He has for us (Ps 28:7). That Love of the Father for the Son, the Love who is the Holy Spirit—and increasing in this Love, which always reaches out, and not in numbers, must be our sole and only focus.

 

[i] Brian E. Daley, S.J., Gregory of Nazianzus, The Early Church Fathers (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2006), Oration 42:16, pp. 147-148.

[ii] Ibid., p.1.

[iii] Ibid., p.27. Direct source, see Michael Psellos, “The Characteristic of Gregory the Theologian, the Great Basil, Chrystostom, and Gregiry of Nyssa.”

[iv] Ibid. pp. 26-28.

[v] Ibid. Oration 42:27, p.154.

[vi] Ibid. Oration 42:9, p.144.

[vii] Ibid. Oration 42:7, p.143.

[viii] Ibid., pp.143-144.

[ix] Ibid. Introduction, 53.

[x] On Himself and the Bishops, as it appears in Gregory of Nazianzus, The Early Church Fathers p. 52.

Romantic Thoughts for Ash Wednesday

Terminate torment

Of love unsatisfied

The greater torment

Of love satisfied.”

— T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

Can Catholics celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, considering that Ash Wednesday this year falls on the same date? Is the feast of love compatible with the beginning of Lent? When the obligation to do penance conflicts with the convention of romance, which of the two should give way?

Because of our natural aversion to self-inflicted suffering and the contemporary view of love that equates it with pleasure, many of us may have initially reacted that no, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday do not mix; that the Church’s regulations on fasting and abstinence would spoil this year’s Valentine’s Day; that this year, we must choose one or the other. Some have proposed, as a practical solution, that Valentine’s Day be celebrated the day before – on what is traditionally known as Mardi Gras – or the day after.

But must it be this way?

It is an age-old tactic of the devil to exaggerate the hardship entailed by our obligations towards God. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent twisted God’s command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and asked Eve if God prohibited them from eating of any tree in the garden. The devil continues using this tactic to today; thus, for example, we rebel against reasonable guidelines against wearing short skirts and low necklines in church because we perceive these guidelines as requiring us to wrap ourselves in sheets.

The same goes true with the mandatory fasting and abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday, and warnings against celebrating Valentine’s Day in a sinful fashion. With regard to the former, it is difficult, to be sure, as I can attest from my struggle to practice portion control on ordinary days. But we tend to exaggerate the hardship it entails. We forget that 1) nothing prohibits us from making the allowed full meal for the day a special one, and 2) non-meat dishes can be delicious.

As for the latter, why must we equate celebrating Valentine’s Day with sinful activities?  Why must we assume that certain prohibited activities are the only ways we can celebrate our love – especially our romantic love – on Valentine’s Day?

We forget that Valentine’s Day was – and still is – a Catholic feast; that love – including romantic love – is something of God.  It is true that this year, liturgically speaking, Ash Wednesday takes precedence over the feast of St. Valentine. There’s nothing wrong, too, with scheduling a Valentine’s Day celebration the day before or the day after Ash Wednesday this year. But neither is there any reason we cannot, within the limits imposed by the mandatory forms of penance, celebrate our love on Valentine’s Day this year.

In fact, this year is a good opportunity for us Catholics to reclaim Valentine’s Day, to use it as an occasion to remind the world what love really is. As we take our allowed full one meal on that day in special seafood grills or sushi bars with our dates, perhaps after going to the church together to have ashes imposed on our foreheads or after having spent time together in a wholesome yet no less wonderful way (which we are supposed to do anyway on any other time of the year), we are showing to the world what we have always known and which the world has forgotten: love is all about joyful sacrifice. As we enter the Lenten season together with our dates, we remind ourselves and others that suffering is the touchstone of love, that the point of penance is not to perform arduous feats of self-denial but to love God and others better, and that with love, suffering is turned into joy.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, and Lent culminates in the commemoration of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. History tells us that in the year AD 136, the Roman emperor Hadrian — in efforts to obliterate Christianity — built a temple to Venus, the pagan goddess of love, on the site of the crucifixion of Christ. It took great efforts two centuries later to uncover the True Cross beneath the ruins of the temple to Venus.

This Valentine’s Day, and hopefully on every Valentine’s Day after, we can bear witness to the true meaning of love after its supplanting for centuries by a perverted understanding of it. Let us show by our example of joyful sacrifice that we know how to truly love.

____

Image: PD-US

I’m Dreaming of a Contemplative Christmas

Together with “exciting” and “joyful”, “stressful” is a word that is associated with the days leading up to Christmas and with the Christmas season itself. Increased rush hour traffic, shopping lists and parties to squeeze into tight budgets and schedules, tasks lists in the preparation of the Christmas dinner, caroling rehearsals, and year-end work to wrap up in the office all pile up at this time of the year. One is tempted to ask, “Is Christmas worth it?”

The antidote to all this stress of the season is to readjust one’s idea of a perfect Christmas, and to aspire for a contemplative one: one spent lovingly gazing at the Holy Family in Bethlehem, and reflecting on what must have been the sentiments of Mary, Joseph, and the adoring shepherds and Wise Men.

Given that the frenzied holiday environment is not conducive to contemplation, a contemplative Christmas does not just happen. It must be deliberately pursued. Here are some suggestions to achieve a contemplative Christmas:

1. Do not skip Advent. The point of this penitential, yet hopeful, season is to prepare for Christmas through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The Sacrament of Penance is a great way to spiritually prepare oneself for Christmas during the Advent season.

2. Schedule pious practices scattered throughout the day: spiritual reading, praying the rosary, fifteen- or thirty-minute periods of silent prayer, daily Mass if possible, and other pious practices one likes.

3. Convert Christmas preparations into prayer. For example, while choosing, buying, and wrapping Christmas gifts, one can pray for the recipients. The same thing can be done while writing Christmas cards, shopping for and cooking the Christmas dinner, or taking the family out to see the city Christmas light displays.

4. Offer up the inconveniences of the holiday season. There will always be reasons, big or small, to complain about the holiday season. Perhaps it is the first Christmas after the loss of a loved one, or perhaps the holiday season aggravates certain family issues, or one is suffering from seasonal affective disorder. Perhaps on some days, the increased rush hour traffic just gets to one’s nerves. Perhaps one is an introvert for whom the thought of attending just one more party is a trial. Fortunately, all these inconveniences borne with a smile can be pleasing gifts to the Christ Child.

5. In relation to the previous suggestion, think of what the Holy Family had to go through. Thinking about Mary and Joseph having had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem with the available roads and transportation at that time, and with Mary about to deliver a baby, helps one to put on a serene smile as one endures rush hour traffic from work to that obligatory party with one’s relatives.

These suggestions will not eliminate holiday stress. But they are tried and true ways to convert the holiday frenzy into true, meaningful, joy that comes from contemplating the Holy Family at Bethlehem. Regardless of what one must endure during the holiday season, a contemplative Christmas is always a happy Christmas.