The End and the Beginning: On What Comes to Pass in the Night Before Advent

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo

Director, Notre Dame Vision

Doctoral Candidate, Systematic Theology, University of Notre Dame

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Advent begins on December 1 this year, meaning that the close of one liturgical year and the beginning of the next occur when November gives way to December.  This coincidental alignment of the Gregorian and liturgical calendars joins two dispositions of the Church in the passing of one night: November’s remembrance of the dead and Advent’s hopeful anticipation of the coming of the Lord.

November begins with the Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of All Souls.  Throughout the month’s thirty days, we take up special practices of prayer to recall the memory of our departed loved ones.  We write their names in books of remembrance and we visit their graves.  We cultivate our memory of the dead both in the interest of their eternal repose and to keep ourselves in relationship with them.

AllSouls

In the four weeks of Advent, we prepare our homes and our parishes for the birth of the Messiah.  We cultivate our hearts and we hone our prayer in hope of making room for the Word of God to take flesh in our midst.  We take up special practices to remind ourselves of our need for a Savior.  We rehearse our trust that he will come.

It is right and proper that in both November and in Advent we give great attention to what we ourselves might do.  We remember, we hope.  We pray, we prepare.  We mourn, we long.  And perhaps it is even the case that in most years, the actions of November seem rather distinct from those of Advent, as one month delivers to us the memory of our loss while the subsequent season invites us to alight in hope.  But the oddity of having to shift from one period to the next without even a day in between allows for a certain liminal awkwardness that, if we attend to it, might just open us to the deeper truth that this year’s coordinated calendars accentuate.  The key to observing this truth rests in shifting our focus from our actions to God’s.Incarnation

In November, how much do we really rely on our own memory to uphold the dead?  In the end, we know that our memories fade and that our powers are limited (at best) to give back to those now gone what they have lost.  When we pray for them, what are we really asking?  When we remember them, what do we seek?  Is it not true that undergirding all we do is a desperate plea for God to do something?  When we pray for our dead, we ask that God remember them; we ask that the God who once called them into existence when they were not would now bring them from death into life (Romans 4:17).  And when we ourselves remember them, are we not really asking that God will remember us with them, so that who we are and who will shall become will not be separated from who or how or where they themselves shall be?  In November, we appeal to God’s memory.  It is God’s memory that abides.

We trust in God’s memory at the end of the liturgical year because of God’s pledge of hope that marks the liturgical year’s beginning.  The initial energy for the liturgical year is not found in our hope for God—our hope for the Messiah, our Savior—rather, what moves liturgical time is what God gives.  Certainly, God gives all to us in the birth of Jesus, who lives through to the cross and is raised three days later from the grave.  Yet Advent is not the season of this gift, but only the gift’s anticipation.  The spirit of Advent comes from a God who desires, for our God is a desiring God.  God desires to give himself to us; God desires us; God desires for us to desire him; God pledges himself to us so that we might wait in trust for what he will give.  God desires us as his own beloved, and anyone who has ever loved someone knows that you lose yourself in hope before your beloved.  So too with God, who goes in search of lost sheep (Lk 15:1-7), who sweeps her house for her lost coin (Lk 15:8-10), who stands waiting and in hope for his lost son (Lk 15:11-32).  God comes for us, God searches for us, God waits for us.

SongofSongsChagall

I first came to glimpse something of this truth when some years ago I was introduced to Charles Péguy’s poem, The Gate of the Mystery of the Second Virtue (cited at then end of the first part of Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Theo-Drama V).  Péguy writes of how our own hope comes from and depends upon God’s own hope.

“God has taken the first step. / We must trust God since he has put his trust in us. / We must place our hope in God since he has so placed his in us” (quoted in Balthasar, TD V, 1.B.c.).

It is strange to think of God as hoping; hope seems like weakness.  And indeed, God becomes weak for us and even gives this weakness of hope to us as the strength of our desire.  God places his hope in us so we might hope in him.  When does God place this hope in us?  When we sleep, when we exercise “the virtue of being able to do nothing.”  That is to say, not during our periods of toil and achievement, not in our times of doing and acting; instead, God gives us what we need most but could never have expected otherwise when we lie in wait, asleep. This gentle imposition of hope is what Advent is all about: this hope is the pledge of future glory.

The night after I read Péguy’s poem for the first time, I began to pray a new prayer over my (then) only child as I put him down to sleep for the night.  As I traced the sign of the cross on his forehead, I prayed these words for both of us: “Lord, renew your hope in us as we sleep.”  In praying thus, I prayed two prayers simultaneously:

  • First, I asked that God never cease to love us, never stop searching for us, never tire of hoping that we might embrace who he calls us to be.
  • Second, I prayed that God would replenish again the hope he instills within us that we may also long for what he desires for us and never settle for anything less.

In other words, I prayed that God would hope in us and that God would place his hope within us.  I still pray this prayer daily over my eldest, as well as his younger siblings.

In praying this prayer at night, I have learned something about the mystery of sleep.  I’ve learned that the silence we enter in sleep relates to the silence we encounter when we call upon our beloved dead or visit their gravesites.  Our powers leave us when we sleep and we become finally powerless in death.  We are silent at the end of the day and at the life.  November is dedicated to this end, the final sleep of death.

But Advent itself begins in sleep.  There is no time before God makes the first move, before God desires us.  It is God’s desire that makes us restless, and so we wait for God.  When God comes, he comes as an infant in a manger—one who does not and who cannot speak.  He is as powerless as one who sleeps.  And when his time comes, he lays down his life upon the cross and enters into the final powerless of death: the most silent night of all.  The one upon whom we DawnfromonHighwait in Advent comes to us in silence only to go from us into the silence of the grave, where the dead lie powerless.  The mystery of the womb and the mystery of the tomb are united in him.

This year’s abutment of November and Advent may remind us that we live in the sacred space between memory and hope.  We remember our dead and we hope for their eternal repose.  We remember the gift of the manger and of the cross and we hope for the Lord to come in glory.  Even more deeply, though, we dare to wager that God remembers us all in his memory and that God renews his hope in us as we sleep.  The hope God gives to us at the beginning of the liturgical year grows into our hope for our brothers and sisters—and for ourselves with them—at the year’s end.  And then we sleep and begin again, for every November begins in Advent.

Post-Script, from the introduction of Maxwell Johnson’s Between Memory and Hope:

The liturgical year is one important means by which we are allowed, invited, and privileged to celebrate the reality that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, mediated to us by Word, Sacrament, and community declares us, forms us, and call us to be Easter people, Lenten people, Christmas people, Advent people, and members of the communion of saints, who love in hope and expectation for the Day of His Coming. […] Advent is about our hope for fulfillment in Christ when ‘he will come to judge the living and the dead,’ a hope solidly grounded in the baptismal Spirit-gift who is the very downpayment and seal of our redemption.  The feasts and commemorations of the saints provide us with models, concrete embodiments of God’s grace incarnate in human history, so that ‘moved by their witness and supported by their fellowship, we may run with perseverance the race that is set before us and with them receive the unfading crown of glory.’”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The True Song of St. Cecilia

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Today, musicians throughout the Christian world will celebrate with joy the feast of their patroness, St. Cecilia. Liturgical celebrations will resonate with anthems and hymns of particular beauty, concerts of sacred music will be performed, all in commemoration of a young Roman girl who lived and died around the third century. Although her association with music did not originate with any particular talent or inclination displayed during her life, nearly all artistic depictions portray her with some kind of instrument. Saint Cecilia with an Angel-Orazio GentileschiIt appears that subsequent generations of Christians began connecting Cecilia with music due to a particular phrase in an early account of her life and her martyrdom, The Acts of Saint Cecilia. According to this account, Cecilia was a young virgin from a noble Roman family, betrothed to a young nobleman named Valerian; however, she desired to live a life of chastity and prayed that God might preserve her virginity. According to the Acts, “Before very long the day of the bridal ceremony was approached, and while the music was sounding, she sang in her heart to God alone, saying: ‘Let my heart and my body by immaculate, that I may not be confounded.’”[1] She and Valerian were married, but on the wedding night, Cecilia told him of her desire to love God alone. Moved by the strength of her faith and by her courageous witness, Valerian not only honored Cecilia’s wishes, but he also converted to Christianity himself, and later encouraged his brother Tiburtius (Turcius in some sources) to do the same. Professing the Christian faith brought swift martyrdom to both Valerian and his brother, and Cecilia followed soon after in giving her life for Christ, but not before she inspired many others to be baptized in her home, which she bequeathed to the Christian community for use as a church.

As a young musician, I never had a moment’s hesitation in choosing Cecilia as my confirmation saint and embracing her as my patroness. However, when I later discovered the fact that her association with music originated not with historical fact but with a legend that grew up in the centuries following her martyrdom, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of disappointment. If Cecilia wasn’t actually a musician during her life, what could I hope to gain from her intercession in my musical endeavors?  It turns out that my understanding of Cecilia and her patronage, and of the communion of saints in general, was an anemic understanding. I was missing the point. It wasn’t any musical ability of Cecilia’s that I should have been trying to emulate; rather, it was the beautiful way in which she offered her entire life as a hymn of praise to God.

Cecilia still speaks—or sings—to us today in her witness, in her fidelity to Christ that led to her martyrdom. The swan song of a young girl who preferred to die rather than betray Christ echoes and resonates down through the centuries, and it is this song that I can learn to imitate; it is this song that we can all learn to sing—whether we have perfect pitch or we’re tone deaf.
Saint Cecilia-Stefano MadernoInaugurated by Christ as He poured Himself out in his Passion and Death, the true song of St. Cecilia is the song of love that dies to self so as to share forever in the life of the Triune God; it is the song of love that has been taken up in ceaseless variation, harmony, and counterpoint by men and women throughout history who now sing hymns of praise before the throne of God.

Each person is called in turn to participate in this song of love, this definitive new song of the new Adam, this song of self-giving love, and each person is called to discern and discover the unique, particular way in which God is calling him or her to sing this new song. In his Sermon on Psalm 32, Saint Augustine rightly asks, “But how is this done?” He goes on to explain:

You must first understand that words cannot express the things
that are sung by the heart. Take the case of people singing while harvesting
in the fields… Although they begin by giving expression to their happiness in sung words, yet shortly there is a change.
As if so happy that words can no longer express what they feel,
they discard the restricting syllables.
They burst out into a simply sound of joy, of jubilation.
Such a cry of joy is a sound signifying that the heart is bringing to birth
what it cannot utter in words.

There is a pneumatic element to this kind of joy-filled prayer too deep for words; it calls to mind the words of Scripture, “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (Rom 8:26). Confident in this intercession, even those who are less than confident about whether or not their voice merits them a place in the heavenly choir need not worry: it is not their merits, but the Spirit within them that enables them to enter the hymn of praise, for “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). It is to this reality that St. Cecilia gives witness. Saint Cecilia detail-Stefano MadernoIt is for this reason that we sing of her who praised God by laying down her life in imitation of Christ. She who is now the patroness of musicians inspires song even today not because she herself was a virtuoso musician, but because of she responded to the grace of the Spirit within her and joyfully echoed Christ’s song of self-giving love. May our voices be one with hers, and with the voices of all the saints and angels, as we too offer our lives as a hymn of praise to God.


[1] from Life and Martyrdom of the Holy and Glorious Martyr of Christ Cecilia, and Those Who Were With Her, Saints Valerian, Tiburtius and Maximus. Translated from The Ancient Acts by John Hodges (London, 1887), 8; italics added.

Liturgy Still Matters

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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Sometime last week, I read with interest the comments on an article at the National Catholic Reporter on the American bishops’ vote to approve new translations for the rites of marriage and confirmation.   While a few comments were directed against the philosophy of translation used in said rites (a potentially legitimate critique), most of the commentators chided the bishops for spending any time on the liturgy at all.   They argued that the bishops should focus on issues that were really important including care for the poor, social justice, and the improvement of preaching.

USCCB Meeting

While direct care for the poor, a discussion of injustice and ways to alleviate it through the renewal of the social order, and the improvement of often tepid, disastrous preaching are essential concerns for the American Catholic, it seems somewhat problematic that questions related to liturgical prayer are perceived as a waste of time.   The vision of the Second Vatican Council was clear that the celebration of the liturgy is not simply decorative ceremony, the play thing of hierarchs.   Instead, “…the liturgy, through which ‘the work of our redemption takes place,’ especially in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, is supremely effective in enabling the faithful to express in their lives and portray to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true church” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 2).  Liturgical prayer is essential to the Church in every generation because it initiates each Christian intoMarianProcessions the mystery of Christ, into that slow transformation of our humanity that becomes a sign of God’s own life.

The tendency to dismiss liturgical concerns as “conservative,” as focusing on smells and bells alone has some validity.  Liturgical prayer understood solely as an aesthetic exercise is dangerous.  Yet, the very same problem is also evident in those who discuss “assistance of the poor” with eloquence but fail to love fully as Christ first loved us.   As John Henry Newman (no enemy of liturgical practice or care for the poor) preached against forms of English evangelicalism:

…here I might speak of that entire religious system (miscalled religious) which makes Christian faith consist, not in the honest and plain practice of what is right, but in the luxury of excited religious feeling, in a mere meditating on our Blessed Lord, and dwelling as in a reverie on what He has done for us;–for such indolent contemplation will no more sanctify a man in fact, than reading a poem or listening to a chant or psalm-tune (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume II.XXX).

In the very same sermon, Newman reminds his auditors that “It is beautiful in picture to wash the disciples’ feet; but the sands of the real desert have no lustre in them to compensate for the servile nature of the occupation” (Ibid.).   Thus, Newman warns the Christian that any form of “mere” aestheticism, one that does not lead to the offering of the will to the Father, is non-salvific.   Such “mere” aestheticism is not reserved for liturgical worship but also for those who enjoy having rousing conversations about injustice but refuse to give themselves over to the concrete practice of loving the neighbor (including the GodisLoveenemy) when difficult.   Mere aestheticism is not a liturgical heresy; it is the sin of the Christian who seeks to affirm one’s feelings, one’s desires, without acting in obediential love to the call of the Triune God revealed in Christ “to love one another, as God first loved us.”

Thus, the problem is not that the bishops have spent too little time on liturgical concerns.   Rather, such concerns have not yet become central to the Church’s full expression of what it means to live as a pilgrim people, infused with the Spirit, sojourning in the world.  As Henri de Lubac writes regarding the Eucharistic nature of the Church:

And as the Spirit of Christ once came down upon the Apostles not to unite them together in a closed group but to light within them the fire of universal charity, so does he still whenever Christ delivers himself up once more ‘that the scattered children of God may be gathered together.’   Our churches are the ‘upper room’ where not only is the Last Supper renewed but Pentecost also (Catholicism:  Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, 110-11).

In the rites of marriage, the whole Church receives a vision of humanity joined together in love, expressing the fullness of self-gift that must come to inform what it means to be human.   To discuss the marriage rites at a plenary session of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops is to uphold this vision of humanity transfigured.   It is to recognize that the Church’s liturgical worship is not a symbolic expression of what we believe alone, the poetry of a Church lost in its own self-indulgence but rather an efficacious participation and proclamation of the reality of divine love.

Indeed, the question of translation has at this point been discussed ad nauseam.   The future of liturgical formation, a task that the bishops (and the entire Church) must be dedicated to, is communicating anew this robust vision of liturgical participation–one that is potentially transformative of the entire human condition.  Those who worship at theToledoMarriageVows altar of the Triune God every Sunday are not attending to aesthetics at the expense of concrete deeds of love.   Rather, the liturgical participant is seeking to unite the fullness of his or her humanity to God, to become what is received, a sign of divine love for the renewal of the world.

Thus, paying attention to the liturgy is not “ignoring” the poor. Such arguments express false dichotomies, which are foreign to the Catholic imagination.   For liturgical prayer is not reserved for the elite; beauty in worship is not the province of the rich.   The rich and poor alike come to participate in the beauty of a God who loved unto the end.   Those in the Church who see questions of the liturgy as unrelated to action, as a waste of time, risk reducing the human condition to its social dimension alone.  In Catholicism, we are made to encounter a love beyond our imagination, a love that has become flesh, that dwells among us in the Eucharist, in the rites of the Church, in psalm tunes ascending to the heavenly places.   To the one who encounters such love made flesh, our imaginations must also be dedicated to see anew Christ who comes in the poor, in the marginalized, in those suffering from injustice.  To forget that the liturgy has the capacity to form us in this imagination is to reduce Christianity to a program of our personal agenda rather than a life of living into total gratitude for the gift that we have received in Christ, the gift that we partake in each time we approach the altar and receive the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.   The sins of my world.  Happy is the entire human family who are called to participate in the supper of the Lamb.

Inklings of a New Evangelization: Francis and the Houses of Healing

MiriamMarstonMiriam Marston, a freelance writer and musician, has been based in the Archdiocese of Boston since 2006, serving most recently as the Assistant Director of Theology Programs at the Theological Institute at St. John’s Seminary.  She has released two albums of original music, and is currently working on a third.

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Other columns in series:
The Beacons Are Lit

Of Myths and Maps

Inside the Song

A Word on Wonder

A Word on Tooks
Secondary Worlds and Primary Truths

Escape and the Good Catastrophe
Treebeard and the Language of Reality
The Valor of Bilbo
Laughter and the Logos
Our Lady and the Elves
Puddleglum’s Dark Night of the Soul

“I see clearly, that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds….” ~ Pope Francis

In my last post, we ventured into the Underland, that dimly-lit world found deep beneath Narnia.  Aragorn in houses of healingThis time, we venture upwards, into the sixth circle of the majestic and towering city of Minas Tirith, the capital of Tolkien’s mythical land of Gondor.  It is here that the Houses of Healing are located, and where the sick and injured are nursed back to health, thanks to the great knowledge of the men and women of Gondor.  Twice in as many pages, Tolkien gives us the following piece of Gondorian lore (and I should note that the italics are Tolkien’s and not mine): “the hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.”  We might say in response: “What does this have to do with us?  We’re not kings and we don’t have this touch of a healer!”  Ah, but we do.  Or else Pope Francis would have reserved the above exhortation for a much smaller audience.  Do we not, at baptism, enter into the threefold office of Christ?

“Thus, every person, through these gifts given to him,
is at once the witness and living instrument of the mission of the Church itself
‘according to the measure of Christ’s bestowal.’” (CCC, §913)

There is no dodging it: when we are baptized, we are made sharers of the kingly office of Christ.  We have been given the hands of a healer.   PetermotherinlawAnd through our serving as instruments of God’s mercy and healing, the world will come to know the rightful King, the Lord who, in his wisdom, orders all things for the good.  In the course of every private battle, at each moment that we freely “exercise a kind of royal power” (CCC, §908) over ourselves, refusing to allow sin any place of honor in our lives, we glorify God.  And by helping to heal even the smallest wound in the other, the presence of Christ the King is made manifest in the world.

Well, ok.  We’re called to heal the wounds.  But where does one even begin with such a task?  Both Aragorn and Pope Francis give us a hint: we must call those who are suffering by their name.  The very first thing that Aragorn does when he sits by the side of an injured person in the Houses of Healing is to say the name of that person.

“…and ever and anon he called the name of Faramir, but each time more faintly to their hearing, as if Aragorn himself was removed from them, and walked afar in some dark vale, calling for one that was lost.” (Return of the King)

Pope Francis has told us time and again that Christians need to cultivate a certain “nearness and proximity” with the wounded among us.  And this nearness can begin with the simple utterance of a person’s name.  We need to develop the habit of looking deeply into the eyes of our neighbor and catching, in his weary gaze, a glimpse of our Lord, looking back at us.   We are called to walk through the battlefield which is the broken home or the broken heart.  As Aragorn seemed to “walk afar in some dark vale,” we must not be afraid to travel far and long, to seek out the one who, in his suffering, has perhaps even forgotten his own name.  Pope Francis asks us, in his words and example:  how far are we willing to walk along the edges and margins, in order to bring the healing touch of the Lord’s mercy?   And is it far enough?

Many of us have now seen the image of Pope Francis embracing a man suffering from neurofibromatosis.  Pope FrancisA headline in the Huffington Post expressed the impression felt by many across the world: Pope Francis Kisses Man With Rare Disorder, Showing The Healing Power Of Compassion.  We probably won’t know what was spoken during that encounter…perhaps almost nothing was whispered between them.  But we do see that the man is so drawn in to that compassionate embrace, that his very face is hidden.  Are we ready to get that close to suffering?

We won’t get very close if we cling too much to the sentimentalism which sometimes accompanies these episodes.  It is not enough for us to exclaim giddily “Oh look, the Pope hugged a sick man!” and then move on to the next story, after some of the warm feelings have faded.  Yes, there are certain images which charm us—say, a photo of puppies frolicking in a field.  But no such photos ever afforded real healing or change, no matter how cute the corgis may be.

And as we stand careful not to slip too far into mild or mushy ideas of Christian charity, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that, even as the Holy Father reaches out to the physically disfigured, he does not forget to address those often-invisible wounds left behind as a result of sin.  Jesus cures a blind manJesus, the Divine Physician, desires to draw out every last drop of poison in the human soul, and the Church, as the extension of Christ’s body in the world, provides the remedies to those souls which might be damaged by the grip of sin.  The sacraments of healingConfession and Anointing of the Sickare treasures of this house which Christ has built.  And if we, as Christians, are members of this house, then we should be trying to live the kind of lives which constantly point back to the healing graces pouring from the side of Christ.

Aragorn calls the sick and injured back to the land of the living.  We should be doing something similar as Christians.  For example, if we happen to see someone stumbling in the darkness and pain of sin, we have a responsibility to attend to them.  And “attending to them” does not translate into raising your voice at them.  Even if you are yelling out the truth at the top of your lungs, a suffering soul may still not hear you.  I believe that Pope Francisfar from curtailing a conversation “about everything else”is emphasizing a point about where the healing normally begins: by grasping for a hand, as a friend might reach out to one who is downtrodden.  And then, hand in hand, we walk with them, emerging from “some dark vale” into the abundant life which awaits each of us under the radiant mantle of the Father’s love.

In the book The Return of the King, the scene in the Houses of Healing does not come at the very end, as one might expect.   I believe it is significant that these scenes of healing do not come after all the drama has subsided, tying up every loose end or uncomfortable plot line.  The healing comes in the middle of the story.  And what does this tell us?  Tolkien states that the now-healed will not wholly forget the pain or grief that comes with suffering, but that “it will not darken his heart, [rather] it will teach him wisdom.”  May our own experiences of God’s healing touch grant us a wisdom which, in turn, inspires us to be fearless in our response to the call to be agents of healing for others.

Love as Strong as Death: The Hope of All Souls

Jenny MartinJenny Martin
Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology
Program of Liberal Studies, 
University of Notre Dame

Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Thursday, November 7, 2013. We are grateful for the author’s permission to share it here.

This I declare, brothers [and sisters]: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,
nor does corruption inherit corruption.
Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed,
in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet.
For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed.
For that which is corruptible must clothe itself with incorruptibility,
and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality.
And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility
and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality,
then the word that is written shall come about:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Cor 15:50-57)

 

In this month of November, which begins rather solemnly with the twin celebrations of the Feast of All Saints and the Feast of All Souls, the brute and altogether absolute fact of death cannot have escaped us.  November is that particular month, of course, where we Catholics specially remember and offer prayers on behalf of the dead, those holy saints and dear ones who have passed on from this world before us.  Fall FoliageAt this time of year we see, even in nature, the reality of death all around us inscribed in the season, as the leaves of the trees, though perhaps glorious in their departure, gradually fall to the ground to give way to bare branches.  The dreadful reality is that ours is a mortal journey toward the end of life on this earth.  And yet, as the first Psalm of blessing indicates, this journey of ours is one which has God as its steadfast guardian, a God who watches “our coming and our going, both now and forever” (Ps 121:8).

Even as we keep death and the reality of mortality always before our eyes, we as Christians live in the hope of the resurrection.  It is this virtue of hope that lets us look for the Lord as, in the Penitential Psalm (Psalm 130), night watchmen search the sky for the first inkling of daybreak, looking for the promise of newness, another day dawning in what the great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins has called “the crimson-cresseted East.”  The promise of resurrection, of course, does not expunge the sorrow, the grief, the bleak sadness of death and dying, either our own or that of those we love.  Cemetary at DawnBut, very much like the language of the Psalms, those songs and poems which unapologetically preserve the full range of human emotion from praise to profound sadness, lamentation, cursing, and bitter anger, the grief of death is transfigured insofar as we know that this death ultimately does not have the last word.

There is a paradox here:  How can it be that the mortal is made immortal, the temporal made eternal?  Paul marks this gulf in his first epistle to the Corinthians:  in the axiom that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does corruption inherit incorruption.” In his Introduction to Christianity, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI emphasizes the inverse of this paradox by turning to the impossible nature of love.  He writes,  “love demands infinity, indestructibility; indeed, it is, so to speak, a call for infinity.  But it is also a fact that this cry of love’s cannot be satisfied, that is demands infinity but cannot grant it; that it claims eternity but in fact is included in the world of death, in its loneliness and its power of destruction.  Only from this angle can one understand what ‘resurrection’ means.  It is the greater strength of love in face of death” (302).  This love we see perfectly exemplified in the self-emptying of Jesus in the form of a servant, even unto death.

Yes, our God is the God of the living, but let us not forget the counterpoise of this truth:  God is also the God of the dying and the dead, the God who takes on the form of a servant, who takes on human flesh, and in humility and love goes even to the Cross.  Rather like in the Psalms, where human experience–both positive and negative–is dignified and transfigured in the grammar and act of prayer, human death has been transformed by Christ’s death and resurrection.  The very natural dreadfulness of death has by grace been overcome supernaturally:  that dread mortal corridor has been already traversed by He who is the resurrection and the life.  Very simply, God is love, and we know from the Song of Songs that love is as strong as death (Song 8:6).  Here tonight’s New Testament canticle, that ancient Christological hymn of Philippians 2, demonstrates what kind of love is able to defeat death, that is able to prompt Paul to write with such a great triumphant swell, “Death is swallowed up in victory!   Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:54b-55). Resurrection-GrünewaldVictory over death is through our Lord Jesus Christ, who doesn’t, like the night-watchman, simply gesture toward day breaking in the East, but IS, in Hopkins’ words, “the dayspring to the dimness of us, our crimson-cresseted East.”  Christ is the extravagant self-gift of pure love, pure relation, existing wholly for the sake of the other.  If the cross is the crux, the fullest expression of this love, the resurrection of Christ by the Father is this love’s vindication, and the beginning of the mystery wherein, “We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor 15:51b-52).

In another well-known resurrection poem, Hopkins has reflected on this very mystery in these memorable lines:

“In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.”

That which was corruptible, marked by weakness, that which was broken shards of pottery and scraps for the kindling has become glorious, incorruptible, immortal diamond.  And truly, this immortal diamond is what we are.  This is ours by grace, because of Christ’s self-evacuating love which is stronger than death, because He chooses love even over life.  Christ’s resurrection is the victory of God, but as Athanasius tells us, this victory is not over our “weak human nature” but rather over the terrible fact that the true divine image and human identity had been corrupted and obscured.  Here, with the self-emptying Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Christ which is the steadfast love of God, we discover that true humanity is not defined by sin or by darkness or by death, but by incorruptibility, glory, love, and life.

“Waking Up the Echoes”: Liturgical Formation, Sacred Scripture, and the Heart of Christ

Laura TaylorLaura Taylor

Master of Theological Studies Candidate,
University of Notre Dame

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Previous posts in this series:
“Waking Up the Echoes”: Notre Dame, Liturgical Formation, and the New Evangelization
“Waking Up the Echoes”: Liturgical Formation from the Outside Looking In
“Waking Up the Echoes”: Liturgical Formation, Penance, and Self-Giving Love

“But above all, it’s the Gospels that occupy my mind when I’m at prayer; my poor soul has so many needs, and yet this is the one thing needful.
I’m always finding fresh lights there, hidden and enthralling meanings.”
—St. Therese of Lisieux

 As a child, I usually thought of the Liturgy of the Word as the interminably long span of time where I could take a brief nap—only to be unceremoniously awoken by the psalm or the Alleluia. I’ll even confess to closing my eyes during the readings once in a while as a college student, especially at a late night dorm Mass in the midst of midterms week. There’s just something about the meaning of this part of the liturgy that has always eluded me, until I took the plunge and started taking Scripture courses in earnest as a graduate student and serving as a sacristan for daily Mass. Immersing myself in this study and service, it was like a veil had been gently lifted from my eyes. Lector 1While the Eucharist is rightly the source and summit of the Christian life, we truly come to know this in the depths of our souls through listening to the proclamation of the Word at Mass. Our active reception of Scripture undoubtedly forms us liturgically, for reasons I elaborate on below.

Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” Dei Verbum, declares that Sacred Scripture is “the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit” (DV, §9). When we listen to the Old Testament readings, the psalms, the epistles, and the Gospels at Mass, we hear God himself speaking directly to us, transmitted through divinely inspired but human hands. Rather than agonizing in private prayer at what we perceive to be God’s unyielding silence and longing to receive some sign that He has indeed heard our cries, we could engage in a more direct encounter with God just by taking the time to concentrate on the revelation of salvation history proclaimed for us during the Liturgy of the Word. LORSCH GOSPELS GO ON DISPLAYYearning for an intensely personal experience of Jesus? Then open your ears! For as St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “Sacred Scripture is the heart of Christ,”[1] anticipated throughout the Old Testament and fully revealed in the New. Centuries later, in addressing the topic of biblical faith, the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that, “in the pierced heart of the Crucified, God’s own heart is opened up—here we see who God is and what he is like” (Spirit of the Liturgy, 48). This idea that Scripture is the heart of Christ allows us to engage in a deeper encounter of His self-giving love, much like the way the Eucharist inexplicably draws us towards the altar each Sunday. Thus, our familiar excuse that “Catholics don’t read the Bible” crumbles, since it gravely undermines our relationship with the God who reveals Himself through the very texts we jokingly rebuff.

I was struck into a moment of profound silence after looking up what the Catechism had to say about scripture, and it also quotes Dei Verbum: “The Church has always venerated the Scriptures as she venerates the Lord’s Body. She never ceases to present to the faithful the bread of life, taken from the one table of God’s Word and Christ’s Body” (DV, §21). Readers, I don’t know about you, but I was never once taught this in Sunday school! If I had been, then I probably would have cracked open my Bible much, much sooner, and forced myself to pay attention during the longer readings at Mass. In addition to cultivating a devotion to the Eucharist and a penitential character, it looks like the veneration of Scripture is going to be an essential component of our liturgical formation as well; for Scripture reveals the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, and His heart. By listening intensely to the Scriptures at Mass and finally taking ownership of our biblical tradition, we come to participate more fully in the life of the Church.

Ambo 1Sacred Scripture in the liturgy and life of the Church is an issue that Dei Verbum treats at length. One of the most transformative statements in the entire document reads: “For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life” (DV, §21). The Church is even referred to as the “bride of the incarnate Word” (DV, §23), opening up an entirely new perspective on the traditional notion of the Church as the bride of Christ, who is the Logos, the very Word of God.

In hearing the Scriptures read each Sunday, we are washed anew in the mysteries of our faith. Medieval Binding 1Through this, God invites us to encounter him in a precious manner; our response to this invitation is the cultivation of a deep faith, in which we submit our whole beings to him. In this faith, we freely submit to the Word of God that we have heard. Chapter 3 of Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy addresses the fundamental form of liturgy—its determination by biblical faith—and agrees: “the only real gift man should give to God is himself” (Spirit of the Liturgy, 35). At the same time that God offers himself to us through our reading of Scripture, we return the favor by responding with a faith characterized by complete and utter self-gift.

Yet, the “great gesture of embrace emanating from the Crucified has not yet reached its goal” (Spirit of the Liturgy, 50). Rather, it has only begun. We remain pilgrims on the journey, at turns stumbling under the weight of sin and being uplifted by God’s grace. The Word proclaimed in the liturgy is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path as we ascend ever closer to the altar of God.


[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, Expos. in Ps 21,11; cf. Ps 22:15.

“All Holy Men and Women”: The Holy Example of the Saints

Katharine Mahon

3rd Year Doctoral Student, Liturgical Studies

University of Notre Dame

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Celebrating All Saints’ Day can easily turn into a sort of liturgical catch-all for the sanctoral cycle: a way to honor any and all saints who fell by the wayside during our yearly celebration of the cycle of saints’ days.  But today is not the liturgical equivalent of the altar to the unknown god in Athens which Paul describes in Acts 17:22-23; the saints are not powerful beings in need of worship and ready to punish us for forgetting them.  The saints are holy Christian men and women, famous for their faith, love, and connection to God during their lifetimes and celebrated for their continued connection to God after their deaths.  We do not honor the saints in their own right, but, rather, we honor them for the ways in which their lives and teachings glorify God, point believers to Christ, and help us to grow in faith.  We honor them for their heroic faith and inspiring Christ-like love; we honor them for making Christ present in the midst of our world, miles away from where Christ walked and centuries after he died; we honor them for living the seemingly impossible perfection of the Christian life which, through Jesus Christ, we promised and we were promised at our baptisms.  We celebrate the saints as our spiritual champions, and yet we acknowledge that they have accomplished that which all Christians are called to do in their mortal lives, and, moreover, that they have received that eternal life which Jesus promised in the Gospels to all who follow him.

Last year on All Saints’ Day, Timothy O’Malley wrote about the Christian vocation to sainthood.  He explained that our humanity is not what excuses us from the perfection of the saints, but is, in fact, the only way in which we can hope to become saints.  How can we possibly hope to accomplish this daunting vocation of saintly perfection, you ask?  The answer, of course, is Jesus (if I have learned anything from graduate theological study, it’s that the answer is always Jesus); perfection can only be reached through Jesus Christ who became human so that humanity could become one with God.  “Follow me,” Jesus invites us again and again in the Gospels, and it is the variety of holy responses to that invitation which not only defines two thousand years of Christian history, but also defines why we celebrate of All Saints’ Day.  All Saints’ Day is not the celebration of the saints for their holiness or miracles in and of themselves; it is the celebration of how the lives, deaths, examples, and prayers of the saints point us to Christ and lead us in our journey to everlasting life with him.

The core of the Christian understanding of sainthood is the belief that the saint lived a life (or, in the case of martyrs, died a death) so exemplary of Christ’s good news or so obviously Christ-like that he or she now undoubtedly enjoys eternal life with Christ.  Let us take Saint Paul as an example: we remember Paul’s holy life and holy death in stories, we celebrate his heavenly union with Christ in the Eucharistic prayers, we request his holy prayers in devotions, and we strive to be holy as he was holy by following the example of his life and the wisdom of his teachings.  There is, however, something troubling to our modern sensibilities about seeing the saints as models and following the examples of the saints.  For one, their examples are incredibly extraordinary (they would be tough acts to follow); for another, standard categorization of the saints can often be quite limited, focusing on the saints’ ordained status or virginity, which seems to boil down their heroic holiness to simplistic models.

The issue, I think, lies in the way we understand the saints as models and how we conceive of imitating their examples.  Saint Catherine of Siena, Virgin and Doctor of the Church, for example, is not a model for a life of faith in the sense that the pattern of her life should be emulated by all women through lifelong virginity and mystical spirituality; Catherine of Siena is a model for all the faithful in as much as she modeled Christ to others and lived a life of exemplary discipleship.  Catherine’s life was notable for her mystical visions of Christ, her selfless work for the poor and ill, her wise spiritual teachings, and even her advising of the pope.  Her life was also marked by an early vow of virginity, near-constant illness and suffering, and extreme fasting that contributed to her early death.  Catherine’s radical asceticism was considered a mark of holiness in the fourteenth century and, tragic as it sounds to us, back then this harsh asceticism was seen as a commendable way to commune with God, to follow Christ, and to become an instrument for grace and holiness in the world.  Her methods may be unpleasant to us but we should consider how they demonstrate the way in which Catherine—in her beloved spiritual teachings, critiques of corrupt authorities, care for the poor and sick, and ceaseless love of the Church—was zealously committed to modeling Christ for everyone who crossed her path and they made her one of the countless saintly models of loving one another as Christ love, the concept which we celebrate today.

At baptism we become Christ’s: we take on the gift of his name and the task of continuing his work on earth. The saints, then, continue Christ’s ministries of love through their work on earth and, by their examples, model the limitless ways in which we grow in communion with Christ by becoming more like him.  We hope, moreover, that their continued prayers and presence with us, the Church here on earth, might aid us in becoming worthy of being called members of the Body of Christ.  Therefore, when we celebrate All Saints’ Day, we celebrate this relationship of holiness—between Jesus Christ, the saints, and ourselves—which we hope will one day lead to all of us being counted among All Saints.