Monday, December 31, 2012

The Holy Name of Jesus

The sacred monogram "IHS" forms the center
of this image for meditation and reflection.
IHS is the opening of the Latin version of the
Holy Name "Jesus."

January first for us in the Church marks not only the first day of a new year; it commemorates Jesus’ being named and circumcised. It forms the conclusion to the Octave of Christmas Day (the eight day period marking a major feast day), and is one of the Feasts of Our Lord. When the Feast of the Holy Name occurs on a Sunday, it displaces the usual readings and collect with its own—such significance it has.

Names for us today have become largely a matter of personal autonomy. People often give their children highly unusual names, occasionally making up new ones; some people change their first name, occasionally as a way to “dress up” an ordinary name. In any case, our names in modern America seem to be a matter of personal property. The biblical notion of names was quite different.

Then, the name given after birth was a matter of family continuity and the very heart of a person’s identity.  Names had meaning (e.g. “power of God,” “multitude,” “my eyes look to God,” “Beloved of God,” “dove,” &c.) that affected the recipient for their rest of his or her life. A name not only distinguished one person from another…it also participated in the very formulation of that person’s identity in the community. It established the lens through which that person was understood, and how that person understood her or his own being. Once given, it was fixed (unless God brought about a new name for a new purpose).

When Jesus is given the name which means “God is salvation,” it sets out the course of his ministry, his being for us. While his name was not unusual when given, its full significance was revealed when he went up on the cross, rose from the tomb, and ascended to the Father: his entire earthly life was not only a proclamation that God is salvation, but provided the very means by which that salvation could be achieved for all peoples in all places in all times.

The Feast of the Holy Name draws upon the sacredness of the notion of “name” from both the Old and New Testaments. It recalls God’s Name being disclosed to Moses and the ways in which that name was invoked over the Hebrew people. We recall, too, the holiness and remoteness of that sacred Name, its utter mystery of meaning and otherworldliness.

When Christ Jesus received his name, the Second Person of the Trinity came to share yet another dimension of what it means to be “fully human,” as the Creed says: he allowed himself to be “defined” by others in such a way that he could be known, related to, and called upon in intimate ways. This, too, is part of the mystery of what it means for the Word to be Incarnate.

But we are recalling other dimensions of “name,” as well: we think about the importance of being baptized into the Name of Jesus and his way of life, his message of salvation. We are also reminded (in Revelation) that our final name is not the one we have in this life, but a name as yet unknown—one we will come to know in heaven. We do not yet even know our true name! That is a powerful sign of why we should adopt a humble attitude towards not only God, but towards each other and our own eternal journey!

So, let us start our new year in by celebrating this Feast, giving thanks for the fundamentally new relationship we have with God, who by allowing his Son to be named, allowed us access to him in a way fully human, and also fully divine.

Collect for the Feast of the Holy Name
Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Friday, December 28, 2012

They could not speak, yet they bore witness to Christ: The Feast of the Holy Innocents

What follows is a portion of a sermon from an early Church Father commemorating the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. For many people learning about this Holy Day, it seems both incongruous and somehow wrong to put such a searingly awful event in the midst of the Twelve Days of Christmas. For us, Christmas has largely become an exercise in middle-class sentimentality rather than a season celebrating the totality of God’s embrace of our condition in the Incarnation. But, for catholic Christianity from the start, this event has been remembered and put front-and-center in our liturgical life. This is because of how seriously the Church has always taken the issue of Christian witness and the value of  innocence.

The Holy Innocents were massacred because they might have been Christ—a rival king to a nervously-despotic Herod. This story has analogues all around us. Recent events in Syria, for instance, show that the barbaric insanity of despotism remains alive and active in our own day.

In our own land, we have recently endured the horror of young schoolchildren murdered in a calculated fashion by a young man apparently motivated in part by the fear his own autonomy was about to end. Like Herod long ago, he chose to kill innocent children as part of a bid to exercise the God-like power of life and death.

The painful truth is that innocents are being murdered privately, publically, legally, and illegally all over the world all the time. It is a horrible fact of our world from which we must not turn away.

The author of the sermon below (Bishop Quodvultdeus of Carthage, obit. Circa AD 453) lived after the great organized Imperial persecutions of Christianity. He shared with many the understanding that martyrdom is the result of a confrontation between the Truth of the Gospel and the lie of sin. He looks at the Innocents as the first victims in this conflict, seeking to give their sorrowful deaths a dignity and purpose found in the Gospel’s final triumph over sin and death on the Cross and in the Resurrection.

In so doing, he draws one of many links between Christmas and Holy Week/Easter for us—for all the central mysteries of our faith are part of one great event of Salvation. Bishop Quodvultdeus is not trying to minimize the horror or the suffering in the story of the Innocents (and neither must we), but he is putting that suffering in a context, the context of Christ’s love and ultimate victory.

Doing that work is something that Christians are privileged to do…but only with the greatest of care, for suffering and loss are not problems to be solved hurriedly, but wounds to be healed in the ways and on the schedules unique to each sufferer.

Perhaps most importantly, this sermon nourishes us, in the midst of the horrors of this world, in an important truth: God makes no compromises with evil, and neither may we. The Collect for this feast (found at the end of this post) puts this in direct terms as we pray to God. We must work with God to confront all that is ungodly, carnal, and destructive—both within us and around us in this world—so that the light of Christ shines brightly, and that the memory of these and other innocents may be honored before God.
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A tiny child is born, who is a great king. Wise men are led to him from afar. They come to adore one who lies in a manger and yet reigns in heaven and on earth. When they tell of one who is born a king, Herod is disturbed. To save his kingdom he resolves to kill him, though if he would have faith in the child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and forever in the life to come.

Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this you are disturbed and in a rage, and to destroy one child whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the death of so many children.

You are not restrained by the love of weeping mothers or fathers mourning the deaths of their sons, nor by the cries and sobs of the children. You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart. You imagine that if you accomplish your desire you can prolong your own life, though you are seeking to kill Life himself.

Yet your throne is threatened by the source of grace, so small, yet so great, who is lying in the manger. He is using you, all unaware of it, to work out his own purposes freeing souls from captivity to the devil. He has taken up the sons of the enemy into the ranks of God’s adopted children.

The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself. See the kind of kingdom that is his, coming as he did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the Savior already working salvation.

But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed and furious. While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying him homage, and do not know it.

How great a gift of grace is here! To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.
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The Collect for the Feast of the Holy Innocents
We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Celebrating the Apostle of Light: St. John’s Day

St. John dictating the Apocalypse to his secretary, Prochorus.
The revealed light of God shines in gold, and through the
Scriptures, enters into the darkness of this world.

The 3rd day of Christmas is the celebration of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist. By tradition he is ascribed authorship to the Gospel that bears his name, as well as the Apocalypse and three short letters in the New Testament. 

He was likely the youngest member of Jesus’ band of followers, and especially close to Jesus, being known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” John was one of the "inner band" of disciples, along with James and Peter, and was present for essentially all of Our Lord's public ministry. He is consistently reported to have lived into advanced age (something alluded to at the close of the Gospel according to John), dying a natural death while serving as the first bishop of Ephesus.

Because they had been commended into each other’s care by Christ on the Cross, by tradition the Blessed Virgin Mary came to live with John for the rest of her life. That same tradition asserts that the other apostles returned to John’s home to be with Mary as she “fell asleep in the Lord.” It was to be the final gathering of the Twelve and Our Lady-- all of whom were together on Pentecost.

Before this, however, St. John suffered persecution for his faith in the Risen Lord, including a sojourn on the labor-prison island of Patmos where he experienced the visions recorded in the book of Revelation. While on Patmos, he would have known privation and beating. Thus, while not being martyred for his faith, he knew the cost of what it meant to take up his own cross and follow Christ.

These are the biographical details. Important as they are, they do not contain the main power of St. John’s witness. That power is lodged in the writings attributed to him, for John was a unique observer of Christ’s ministry. From the Prologue of the Gospel through the end of the Revelation, from the “signs” Christ worked in his ministry through his “enthronement” on the Cross and on to John’s teaching about the nature of Christian Love in the First Letter of John, there is a special voice speaking: the voice of personal experience, personal liberation in mystical encounter.

We celebrate St. John today bathed in the light of the Incarnation. John spoke with great fluidity about this Mystery. He saw how it permeates everything in the Christian’s life. The Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us is not, for John, an exterior event. It is an interior reality realized by God’s initiative and by human contemplation. The beauty and power found in John’s writings is the direct result of prayer—of time immersed in the timeless.

And this is the ‘missing piece’ in most modern theology and spiritual writing. Only those who have been soaked in prayer may speak with authority about the things of God. All else is merely opinion. This reminds me of the art and architecture historian and critic John Ruskin’s remark about what made it possible for Medieval people to build the great cathedrals—and what makes that same effort impossible for us today: theirs was a world of belief; ours is one of opinions. Opinions could never build a great cathedral.

Much of St. John’s work is suffused with light encountering darkness and overcoming it. That is, for those in northern climes, a directly applicable theme drawn from nature this time of year. But the Apostle was speaking from an interior knowledge much more than an earthly one.

For him, a unending light had pierced the darkness of human thought, the darkness of the human heart separated from God. It is this experience, mediated in prayer and compassion, that marks this day with a special significance. For us, today is a celebration of that Light and its potential in each of us, even as it moves inexorably towards its final, triumphant culmination, the assurance of which we find whenever we read the Beloved Disciple’s words.

Collect for the Feast of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist
Shed upon your Church, O Lord, the brightness of your light, that we, being illumined by the teaching of your apostle and evangelist John, may so walk in the light of your truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Sheer Grace: The Incarnation of God in Christ

Below is a passage from a sermon on the Incarnation by St. Augustine of Hippo. It is largely a meditation on verses from Psalm 85, but its theme is that of total stupefaction, joy, and awe in the mystery of God coming to be with us in Christ. While debates rage in the press and the comments sections of internet articles about Christianity, for those of us who have come to know firsthand the simple beauty and peace of receiving the gift of Christ, it is a time for being ravished by the vastness of God’s love for us. May this passage from St. Augustine bring words to what we know to be true in our hearts.

Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man. Awake, you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you.  I tell you again: for your sake, God became man.

You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened ‘to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.

Let us then joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption. Let us celebrate the festive day on which he who is the great and eternal day came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short day of time.

He has become our justice, our sanctification, our redemption, so that, as it is written: Let him who glories glory in the Lord.

Truth, then, has arisen from the earth: Christ who said, I am the Truth, was born of the Virgin. And justice looked down from heaven: because believing in this new-born child, man is justified not by himself but by God.

Truth has arisen from the earth: because the Word was made flesh. And justice looked down from heaven: because every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.

Truth has arisen from the earth: flesh from Mary. And justice looked down from heaven: for man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.

Justified by faith, let us be at peace with God: for justice and peace have embraced one another. Through our Lord Jesus Christ: for Truth has arisen from the earth. Through whom we have access to that grace in which we stand, and our boast is in our hope of God’s glory. He does not say: “of our glory”, but of God’s glory: for justice has not come out of us but has looked down from heaven. Therefore he who glories, let him glory, not in himself, but in the Lord.

For this reason, when our Lord was born of the Virgin, the message of the angelic voices was: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to men of good will.

For how could there be peace on earth unless Truth has arisen from the earth, that is, unless Christ were born of our flesh? And he is our peace who made the two into one: that we might be men of good will, sweetly linked by the bond of unity.

Let us then rejoice in this grace, so that our glorying may bear witness to our good conscience by which we glory, not in ourselves, but in the Lord. That is why Scripture says: He is my glory, the one who lifts up my head. For what greater grace could God have made to dawn on us than to make his only Son become the son of man, so that a son of man might in his turn become son of God?

Ask if this were merited; ask for its reason, for its justification, and see whether you will find any other answer but sheer grace.