Category Archives: Christology

What Can I Give?

Grace

Grace Mariette Agolia

Undergraduate Fellow

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During these liturgical feasts of Christmas, the Holy Family, and Epiphany, we celebrate the giving and receiving of gifts.  There are the physical gifts around our Christmas trees that we give to each other; there are the spiritual gifts of presence and prayer that we share; and most of all, there is the gift of God in human flesh for the salvation of us all.
God gives himself to us!  That is an incredible, extraordinary, marvelous, and life-changing gift which we receive if we allow our hearts to be open to his coming, but it is also a gift which begs the perennial human question in response to this action of divine mercy,
“What can I possibly give to God in return?”
So often I feel like the old shepherd in the film The Nativity Story who feels that he has no gift to bring to God and to others.  He says this to Mary and Joseph, who are warming themselves by the fire he had offered to them on their way to Bethlehem because they seemed cold.  While they are sitting by the fire, Mary says to the shepherd, “I will tell our child about you.  About your kindness.”  The shepherd replies, “My father told me a long time ago that we are all given something.  A gift.  Your gift is what you carry inside.”  Mary then asks him, “What was your gift?”  The shepherd says, “Nothing.  Nothing but the hope of waiting for one.”
I would say that many of us feel similarly.  Growing up, we are frequently asked by others questions like these:  “Who do you want to be when you grow up?”  “How do you want to use your gifts?”  “What will you do to make a difference in this world?”
Sometimes we have an idea of what we would like to do with our lives, so we say what that might be.  But that vision often changes with our circumstances, and by the time our student lives are over, and we are working to make a living, sometimes we wonder, “How did I get here?”  “What I have missed?”  “Where am I really going?”  “This is not what I had planned.”  “Am I really making a difference in this big world?”  We can feel small and poor because the world can be a lonely and confusing place.  The gifts that we thought we had don’t seem to be massively impacting the world, we don’t feel fulfilled in giving of ourselves to our daily labors, we’re working in ways that don’t make use of our gifts because we’re struggling just to scrape by, or we’re still searching for our gifts.
I remember during one year in high school when I was on a retreat, my small group leader asked the members of our group to make a list of ten gifts that we have.  I thought about it and wrote down two or three, which seemed inconsequential to me and not of much use.  Then tears started to form in my eyes because I couldn’t think of any more gifts to write down.  I felt so small and poor in comparison to others around me.  I could only hope that I was wrong and wait for someone to tell me how immeasurably blessed I am and what a difference I can make in this world.  I didn’t know it then, but I had to understand first what “gift” really is and what “making a difference” means.
When someone does tell us about a gift that we have, which we did not initially recognize in ourselves, it is great news to us – just like when the angel appears to the old shepherd and announces to him the great gift of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.  When we receive news of such a gift, we are taken aback, an awareness is awakened in us, and we go to seek out what this great gift is and how we might share it.  When we find it and touch it, we are surprised by joy, and we express thanksgiving by sharing it with others.
And so, in The Nativity Story, the old shepherd travels to the stable in Bethlehem to see what this gift is that he almost despaired of waiting for in thinking that he had nothing to give.  When he approaches Mary cradling the infant Jesus, he kneels down and looks at the newborn Jesus with amazement.  He then slowly reaches out to touch Jesus, but he cannot bring himself to do so.  He seems too good to be true.  And why would he want to give himself to me, a poor, lowly shepherd with no gifts to give in return.
As Christina Rossetti writes in her poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,”
“What can I give Him, poor as I am?”
magigiftsThere are people who can give their property as shelter – a stable for animals that the Holy Family uses – and there are those like the magi who can give gold, frankincense, and myrrh out of their wealth.  But what can poor, lowly shepherds give?  They don’t seem to have anything of real value to give to such an extraordinary person – God made flesh in love for us.  The old shepherd withdraws his trembling hand, but he continues to gaze in wonder at this newborn child, this indescribable gift.
Mary, however, turns to the old shepherd and holds Jesus toward him, saying,
“He is for all mankind.”
Encouraged by these words, the shepherd then slowly reaches out his hand again to touch the infant Jesus.  TouchWhen he finally touches Jesus, the shepherd is overcome with emotion and closes his eyes.   Mary then says to the shepherd,
“We are each given a gift.”
The old shepherd’s eyes widen with realization.  It’s as if Mary is saying to him, “Touch him.  He is your gift.  He is what you carry inside.  Touch him, open your heart, and he is yours!”  This infant Jesus is a gift for all human beings, including the old shepherd himself.  We are each given the profound gift of love, God in the flesh, become one of us and who shares in our suffering and in our joy.  That is the gift that we carry in our hearts – love himself.
Thus, this Christmas event radically transforms our understanding of “gift” and of “making a difference.”  Our epiphany is this:  His striking manifestation to us as true God in true human flesh reveals to us that our sinful humanity is not worthless.  He loves us!  He has mercy on us!  He is one of us!  This gift of Jesus leads us to recognize how we might share that gift of love with others.  The old shepherd, even when he thought he had nothing to give, had the gift of love:  he gave to the Holy Family kindness, warmth, comfort, and friendship, even though he was just a stranger on the road.  Even though he may have felt cold and empty, he still carried the little flame of hope inside.  The gift of Jesus helped him to recognize the value and purpose of his own life.  Life is not just about survival.  It is so much more than that.  Love makes the difference.  Talents that we have may be gifts, but they will remain just abilities if not given to others in love.  As St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:1-7,
“If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.
And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated,
it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
They are gifts because they are not our own; they are meant to be shared.  They are gifts precisely because they involve a gift of the self in love to the other.  Gift is an embodied act, and it is the way in which we are to see the world.
We are each given a gift.  What gift do I carry inside?  Do I know what gift I can give to the Christ child in my heart?   What can I give?  As Christina Rossetti writes in the last stanza of her poem,
“Yet what I can I give Him:  give my heart.”
givehearttogodWe can’t really give anything to God, except what has been first given to us.  When we give gifts, it is because something or someone makes a claim on us, and we want to express our gratitude.  It can never really be an exchange.  In the case of God, moreover, God makes His claim on us; we cannot make a claim on God.  No gift of our own will ever really be adequate to express our thanksgiving.  We can only offer back the gift he has given us first:  His love.  Our love is formed and perfected in His love, and it is that we are to give.  Jesus is the gift that we receive, and at the same time, he is the gift that we give in our worship because he is the true gift, the perfect gift, the gift of love.  He is the only one who leads us to the Father, and the way we meet the Father is through love.  Jesus is this love.  In our hearts, if only we prepare Him room, dwells Love incarnate.  The gift that we can give Him is our hearts filled with love , as we give of ourselves for each other.
worksofmercyHow can we do that?  Through the practice of mercy, which is what God demonstrates for us as the face of mercy in Jesus.  We can do corporal and spiritual works of mercy for each other, and in doing so, we give our hearts to God.  Likewise at Mass, we “lift up our hearts” to God in prayer.  We can proclaim the praises of the Lord, as Mary does in her Magnificat, humbly lifting up her heart to God and magnifying His name.  That is how we can make a difference in the world.  It starts person to person.  Mercy must be practiced constantly for love to bear fruit.  In Jesus, our poverty is made rich because he is the gift of love, and he invites us to become sharers in that gift of love.  Our life reveals its meaning in gift.  Let us lift up our hearts to embrace that love and to share it with all we may encounter.  Let us approach the newborn Jesus each day, gaze upon him in wonder in each person we meet, touch his face, and realize this gift of love that animates our lives.  Let us walk rejoicing and share this gift with gratitude.

Practicing Mercy

Jessica Keating_headshotJessica Keating, M.Div.
Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives,
University of Notre Dame

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For those of a certain generation, the word mercy will forever conjure the image of a leather-clad, feather-haired Uncle Jesse, exclaiming, “Have mercy.” If not, you can watch a 2-two minute summary here.

Somehow, I don’t think this is what Pope Francis had in mind when he declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy, set to begin tomorrow on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In the papal bull announcing the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus, Francis writes:

Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. . . . Whoever sees Jesus sees the Father (cf. Jn 14:9). Jesus of Nazareth, by his words, his actions, and his entire person reveals the mercy of God. We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness (§§1–2).

In some ways the declaration of a year of mercy seems hopelessly inadequate. The pragmatist in me scoffs at mercy. Mercy is too dangerous; it is too costly.  In world beset by violence and terrorism, where it seems all the news is bad news—bombings, shootings, kidnappings, natural disasters—mercy seems, well, not quite up to the task. Mercy seems reckless and imprudent. When things are better, when the world is safer, then it will be time for mercy. For now, mercy can wait.

But mercy doesn’t wait. It runs out into the danger; it bears the cost. Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium anticipates Misericordiae Vultus. Francis avers that Christ, the sacrament of salvation, is God’s work of mercy (cf. EG, §112). God’s mercy comes out to meet us, while we bear the weight of sin. God doesn’t wait for things to get better, for the world to be safer before sending his beloved Son. God enters into the quagmire most imprudently as an infant needing a home—as a helplessly needy, nearly blind infant. The eternal Word becomes speechless. The one through whom the entire cosmos is created and sustained in being is now hidden. Mercy is enthroned in the obscurity of the manger.

The recklessness of God! In The Portal to the Mystery of Hope, French poet Charles Péguy captures the audacity of divine mercy:

Terrible love, terrible charity,
Terrible hope, truly terrible responsibility,portal

The Creator has need of his creature, put himself in need of his creature.
And can’t do anything without it.
A king who has abdicated into the hands of each of his subjects
Merely absolute power.
God needs us, God needs his creature.
. . .
What rashness. What confidence.
Well or misplaced confidence, that all depends on us.
What hope, what obstinacy, what one-sidedness, what incurable strength of hope. (84–85)

God places himself in our hands. In his reckless and inefficient mercy, God hopes in us. We are called to show mercy because mercy has been shown to us in the person of Christ Jesus (cf. MV, §9). As an expression of the God who is love, mercy is always personal. It resides in the immaculate womb of Mary. Mercy heals the sick and forgives sinners. Mercy flows from Christ’s open side. Mercy welcomes the prodigal son home; mercy searches for the lost sheep; mercy endures for our sake. In the flesh of love, Christ’s flesh, mercy comes into the world to embrace, heal, weep, pray, and delight with us.

Mercy is never abstract. It is a practice of love, and like all practices, it is concretized by doing something somewhere. It takes place in the michelangelo_caravaggio_30_the_seven_works_of_mercyshadows, on the peripheries, and in the mundane realities of daily life. Yet in its hiddenness, mercy is the antidote to despair; it is the work of hope which remains “impossible to extinguish; as that little flame in the sanctuary” (Péguy, 7). Mercy is a form of life that flows from the pierced side of Christ. It is a form of life that puts us at the disposal of another. By practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy— feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the stranger, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, burying the dead; instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offenses, comforting the afflicted, praying for the living and the dead—we participate in form of life that renders present the work of mercy in every age.

On the Road Again

s200_david.lincicumDavid Lincicum, D.Phil.

Associate Professor, New Testament Studies

University of Notre Dame

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Who doesn’t love a good road trip?

From Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, American literature is criss-crossed with road trips, journeys of transformation and discovery (many of them mapped if you’d like to follow along). And the very title of this post is probably enough to embed Willie Nelson’s earworm in your head for the next several weeks.

For the earliest Christians the road was something like a master metaphor. They inherited the scriptural habit of referring to their ethical conduct as a ‘way’ or ‘path’, they designated Jesus as the ‘road’ to God (John 14:6), and were even called ‘the road’ or ‘the way’ before they became designated ‘Christians’ (see Acts 9:2; 11:26). In this sense, we would do well occasionally to translate hodos with ‘road’ rather than the more abstract ‘way’, to remind ourselves of the concreteness of the image.

But why did the designation come to have such prominence?

For any nation, institution, or even for individual families, the story of their founding offers an anchor in the past to which they can return for guidance, an Archimedean point or a north star by which to navigate. Israel had multiple founding moments – creation, the election of Abraham, the giving of the Torah – but the deliverance of Israel from her forced slavery to Egypt in the Exodus loomed large among them.

The Passover tradition commemorating the Exodus ensured that the annual remembrance, the anamnetic commemoration of the deliverance, held the event regularly before the eyes of God’s people, and so it became over time a basic paradigm of salvation. When Israel found herself oppressed and in politically disadvantageous circumstances, she could remember God’s prior act of rescue from Egypt and ask for a repetition, an Exodus 2.0.The appeal for a sequel to the Exodus runs throughout the Psalms, but also enlivens the section of prophecy we have come to call deutero-Isaiah. In a turning point – beautifully captured in the opening movement of Handel’s Messiah – God instructs the prophet to comfort Israel after her long punishment in the Babylonian exile. Israel has been far from her homeland in a forced migration, but the prophet announces to the migrants a return: ‘in the wilderness, prepare a road for the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’. The refugees needed a way to cross the foreboding desert to return westward to their ancestral land, and the prophet announces another exodus through another wilderness as the way to get there. After all, if God had done it once, he could certainly be asked for a repeat performance.

Flash forward over half a millennium, and the Gospel of Mark re-uses Isaiah’s words in its prologue: as it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’”. Close scrutiny reveals that the text is actually a conflated citation of Exodus, Malachi and Isaiah, but the mixed citation is ascribed to Isaiah as a means of signaling the controlling framework. Now, however, it isn’t the highway that is built in the wilderness, but rather the messenger who makes his proclamation there as a vox clamantis in deserto.

But what sort of road does Mark envisage? If he announces the construction of an Isaianic New Exodus highway, where does it go? The people of God are already in the land, and the idea of movement is initially puzzling.

Isaiah had announced the advent of YHWH, but in Mark’s telling – with a bit of help from the Greek translation of the Hebrew original – it is the kyrios, the Lord who comes: Jesus now acting in YHWH’s anticipated place. But rather than arrive with guns blazing, to unseat the Romans and reinstate the kingdom of God with force, with power, as the greatest country on the face of the earth, he comes in self-dispossession. And as Mark’s Gospel proceeds, we begin to notice that Jesus summons not soldiers and politicians, but a few fishermen and other workers to join him on the road.

Mark’s Gospel is thus a sort of road trip. Something is always happening euthus, immediately. Jesus seems to rush breathlessly from one healing or conflict to the next, and for the first half of his story the movements almost seem erratic (just try to work out the sea crossings in Mark!). But ‘on the road’, Jesus poses to the disciples a question about his identity (8:27), and from that time onward – even though his true identity is first grasped only haltingly, and never really fully until the cross – Jesus walks a single path, with firm intention: to make his way to Jerusalem.

The reader only slowly realizes, with dawning horror, that God’s highway, to which Isaiah pointed, the path out of the wilderness and to the promised land, is a death march. Jesus presses relentlessly on, progressively alienated from those around him, even finally from God, until he ascends the royal road to the ironic enthronement of the cross.

Emmaus iconWhat might have seemed to the casual observer to be merely another senseless death, another body crushed by the turning wheel of an unsteady history, now appears, to the eyes of faith, as the coming of God: not as one might have deduced it by reflecting abstractly on the most fitting way for a god to arrive, but by viewing the crucifixion from the road, following on behind Jesus as a disciple called to walk after the master.

In Advent, we reflect on the coming of Jesus in helplessness to the world and look forward to his coming again to set the world to rights. And we walk, as a pilgrim people, on the long road that stretches between those two advents. The path is sometimes an ambiguous one, as the apostle Paul knew all too well. He could describe it as a triumphal procession in which it is unclear whether we are the victors parading in triumph or the vanquished prisoners marching toward death (2 Cor. 2:14–16).

Jesus offers, now as then, a place behind him as followers on the path he broke. But the disciple is not above the master. The road of the new exodus is not a scenic drive that skirts the dodgy parts of town in favor of the countryside. But it leads after Jesus, through death and onward, into the hope of a resurrected life.

The Advent of Divine Mercy

GraceGrace Mariette Agolia

Undergraduate Fellow

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I often do not know what to think during Eucharistic Adoration.  Sometimes, I’m just too tired and want to fall asleep.  Other times, I think too much, preoccupied with the details of the service.  What is the priest doing?  I hope he doesn’t trip over his vestments when he stands up.  Should I be kneeling or sitting?  I hope nobody notices how off-key I am when I sing.  Oh, shoot, I wasn’t supposed to say that response yet – how embarrassing.  Person behind me, please stop shuffling and making all that noise.  Wow, look at that incense cloud wafting up to the ceiling.  Incense smells so good, but I hope no one here is allergic to it.   I wonder if I can translate this Latin text of the Tantum Ergo.  Oh no, my stomach is growling so loudly… I hope the music comes on soon.  I don’t like this song; I wish they’d stop playing and just let there be silence.  Why can’t there be a prettier-looking monstrance?  Gosh, that person looks so holy and focused in prayer.  I wish I could be, too.

holyhour

I try to close my eyes to stop taking in so much external stimuli.  But then, images from the course of the day or fantasies I conjure up enter in, and my mind wanders even more, dwelling on things that I probably shouldn’t be thinking about.  Why can’t I concentrate?  I then try to think about theological ideas that I’ve learned, such as Eucharistic Real Presence, the Incarnate Word of God, transubstantiation, and the Trinity in an attempt to help me focus.  Okay, so this is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died and rose from the dead.  He’s the second person of the Trinity, the Word of God who was present before all creation and through whom all creation came into being.  He became incarnate in human flesh at a particular moment in history.  I’m looking at the Body of Christ, the Eucharist that I receive at Mass, the transubstantiated element of bread, now no longer the substance of bread, even though the accidents are still there, but now the substance of the risen Jesus himself.  He is really present…but it looks like bread, and I still don’t really feel anything.  Or perhaps I’m touched by the light shining on the monstrance, which makes it seem like Jesus is radiating his light on all of us, but is that just aesthetics?  And so my thoughts keep spiraling.

Grace, stop.  Don’t think so much.  Just pray.

But… I don’t know how.  What do I do?  How is prayer different from thinking?  I stare at the white disc in the monstrance, trying to keep my thoughts at bay, and trying to think of things to say to God, to Jesus, who should be my most intimate friend and with whom I should be able to share the desires of my heart, my sorrows, and my moments of happiness and gratitude.  I’m mostly unsuccessful, however, because my thoughts have just turned to the historical and theological exegesis that my theology classes have been doing on the Lord’s Prayer.

I sigh, and I try to think of simpler things.  I know that I am waiting for something – an encounter with a Person, whom I know also seeks me, but infinitely more so than I seek Him.  My heart, however, seems as if it is unresponsive to the great wonder of the Lord’s real presence before me, and I begin to give up on finding some disposition of prayer before the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament is over for the evening.  Will I ever be able to be open, still, and humble enough to allow God’s advent into my heart?  Finally, a short and simple prayer comes into my mind:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This is the “Jesus Prayer.”  The Jesus Prayer is often associated with The Way of the Pilgrim and Other Classics of Russian Spirituality and the hesychast tradition of illumination and transfiguration of the human person in the Taboric light, with a special emphasis on mercy and penance.  But of course, you don’t need to know that in order to realize the power of the Jesus Prayer and the mercy of God.

What’s truly important is this:  In the resonant silence of adoration, mercy seeps in.  In a quiet, humble town in Israel, an infant was born.  God makes the first move, but it is often unnoticed.  I had never thought of Jesus before as Mercy itself, and I had not begun to recognize God’s subtle but powerful act of mercy in my life until now.

faustina
Sister Maria Faustyna Kowalska, O.L.M.

Saint Faustina, a Polish nun, was a person who recognized the importance of this divine mercy and its advent in the human heart.  The Divine Mercy Chaplet is a well-known devotional prayer that arises out of her contemplation of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and her encounters with him in visions.  The chaplet essentially has three simple prayers:

“Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and the Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.”
“For the sake of Your sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
“O Blood and Water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus as a fount of Mercy for us, I trust in You.”
Throughout her conversations in prayer with Jesus, St. Faustina took to heart the vital message of the mercy of God made incarnate in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ.  Mercy itself entered into history and radically interrupted the course of human existence with the indescribable gift of his self-giving love.  The mercy of God was outpoured in the Incarnation and on the Cross; the mystery of blood and water in his flesh and gushing out of his pierced side reveals to us the extraordinary love of God.   What happens when we are the recipients of mercy?  Oftentimes, we are incredulous because we feel that it is mercy we don’t deserve.  That sort of freely given and unmerited gift shocks us.  It demands a response, but there is no adequate response that we can give, other than by offering back to God the gift given to us in the Eucharist and trusting in His great mercy.  Thus, mercy also inspires gratitude; it forms in us a disposition of thanksgiving.
Kazimirowski_Eugeniusz,_Divine_Mercy,_1934
The original image of the Divine Mercy, painted by Eugene Kazimirowski from 1934-35 under the guidance of Saint Faustina, who was not completely satisfied with the work. She later prayed to Jesus, “Who will paint You as beautiful as You are?” Jesus replied, “not in the beauty of the color, nor of the brush is the greatness of this image, but in my grace.”

Mercy transforms, and we enter into transfiguration.  Mercy inspires conversion, and it allows us to enter into an authentic freedom of the heart, freedom to receive and to give to those who are our sisters and brothers in Christ. For St. Faustina, love and mercy unites the Creator with his creation, and this is ultimately expressed in the Incarnation and the Redemption, as she explains through her experience at Eucharistic Adoration one day:

“When I was in Church waiting for confession, I saw the same rays (that is, as those depicted on the revealed image of the Divine Mercy) issuing from the monstrance and they spread throughout the church. This lasted all through the service. After the benediction (the rays came forth) on both sides and returned again to the monstrance. Their appearance was bright and clear as crystal. I asked Jesus that He deign to light the fire of His love in all souls that were cold. Beneath these rays a heart will be warmed even if it were like a block of ice; even if it were as hard as rock, it will crumble into dust.

And I understood that the greatest attribute of God is love and mercy. It unites the creature with the Creator. This immense love and abyss of mercy are made known in the Incarnation of the Word and in the Redemption [of humanity], and it is here that I saw this as the greatest of all God’s attributes.”
Another painting of the Divine Mercy was made by Adolf Hyła, as an expression of gratitude for the survival of his family during World War II. This second original is called the "Kraków Divine Mercy Image" because it is kept in the Divine Mercy Shrine near Krakow, Poland.
Another painting of the Divine Mercy was made by Adolf Hyła, as an expression of gratitude for the survival of his family during World War II. This second original is called the “Kraków Divine Mercy Image” because it is kept in the Divine Mercy Shrine near Krakow, Poland.

The Word that He is and the Word that He speaks is mercy.  And so, the silence we experience at Eucharistic Adoration is a silence pregnant with meaning.  It is the advent of this mercy in the human heart for which we try to prepare; it is this mercy that we come to adore at Christmas.  We must cultivate humility to ask for and receive this mercy.  We may have nothing to offer, except for swaddling clothes to hold him, but over time, we can let the cradle of our hearts in which we hold him become the monstrance of our hearts.

O, come, let us adore Him.  Let us prepare him room and allow Him to enter in and warm us.  His is the light that we radiate to the world from our inner monstrance – rays of divine mercy, of redeeming blood and water, that transform our vision and the world.   Does your soul feel cold or unfeeling?  Has the night of loneliness been too long?  Come, be warmed in the rays of Divine Mercy, be enkindled in the fire of His love.

Jesus, I trust in you.

A Temple of the Holy Ghost

Vienna Wagner

Vienna Wagner
Notre Dame Vision Mentor-in-Faith (2014)
University of Notre Dame, Class of 2015

I was born a perfectionist.  As an ambitious older sibling, I was always eager to prove myself.  I got straight A’s, played sports, sung in musicals, and competed on the academic team.  I planned to attend an Ivy League college, go to medical school, and make more money than my parents.  Success was my main desire.

I was baptized in the Mennonite Church and believed that I was in complete control of my faith and my life.  I believed that I was strong, but the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.  Instead of depending upon God, I became like the foolish man in the Gospel of Matthew who built his house on sand.

My control came crumbling down during my senior year of high school.  When I returned from my summer vacation, the twin brother of my best friend, who was my high school boyfriend, had transformed into an angry stranger.  Our relationship became physically and emotionally abusive.  He began to flirt with my friends and mocked me for my looks, my grades in school, and my Christian faith.

I could not tell my best friend how hurtful her brother had become, and, instead of turning to God and his love, I retreated into silence.  I ate lunch alone and hardened my heart.  I began to believe that I was worthless, not worthy of God’s grace.  I refused to confide in my friends and family and continued with the motions of my put together, perfectionist’s life.  I focused even more on college applications and scholarship competitions.  I continued to attend church but refused to allow the Word of God to comfort me.  I blamed myself for what had happened and sometimes blamed God.

I was ashamed of myself for staying with my high school boyfriend for as long as I did.  My body became a thing that was ugly to me, something apart from myself.  I did not view my body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.  Rather, my body became the one thing that I could completely control.  Although I was already slightly underweight, I scalebegan to skip meals and exercise at every possible opportunity.  Anorexia became my idol.

As I lost the pounds, my friends complimented me on my appearance, but their compliments only fed my eating disorder and my disordered pride.  As I counted calories obsessively and developed rules for what I could and could not eat, I could not escape feeling disgusted with myself.  No matter how many pounds I shed, I believed that I would never be good enough to be authentically loved, to merit God’s grace.  I lived like a prisoner within my own body.  My life was forcibly focused on school, not eating, college applications, not eating, and avoiding my ex-boyfriend.

Without God, I would have not survived.  Since my baptism, I had taken communion at my local church but had never seriously thought through what it means to take the Eucharist and accept the body and blood of Christ.  As my pastor said Christ’s words of institution, “Take and eat; this is my body,” I began to reflect on the importance of the Incarnation, of God having a body that could suffer like mine.  Through Christ’s death and resurrection his human body was glorified.  Not just Christ’s spirit, but also his human body was freed from death.

As I took the host from my pastor’s outstretched hands and placed it on my tongue, I began to adopt a new definition of beauty.  I realized that my body is a temple where the spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells.  That Holy Spirit also brings life to my mortal body.  I realized that if my body is a holy temple and an inseparable part of myself, then I needed to take care of it.  In light of God’s love I am beautiful.  I am God’s beloved creation that he molded into his likeness.

Incarnation

I decided to stop counting calories and gave up my control over how many ounces I weighed.  I realized that I had allowed what had happened to me to harden my heart and turn it inward upon itself.  I had starved my heart and locked it away.  I made it impenetrable to God’s salvific love.

I told my family and my friends the truth about my high school boyfriend and my eating disorder.  I have learned to not blame God for my suffering, but to see Christ suffering beside me.  I have begun to forgive myself and am learning to rest in God’s grace and steadfast love.

In light of the Eucharist even my physical act of eating was transformed into a sacrament and a participation in the life of Christ.  My body was no longer disgusting to me, and I no longer felt separated from that part of myself.  Although I do not believe that God wills such suffering upon his children, I believe that he has used my pain to teach me how to authentically love.  I have learned to view all of creation, including myself, as an undeserved gift.  There is freedom in living in the love of God’s grace, a grace that I can never earn or deserve.   God cares for me like he cares for the rest of his creation.  I can trust in God, and, with God as my strength, I don’t need to worry about my weight or my reputation.  Only Christ could heal my brokenness.

Liturgical Formation: Three Thoughts from Societas Liturgica

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

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Last week, I participated in a week long ecumenical gathering of international liturgical scholars. The theme of this year’s Societas Liturgica biennial meeting was liturgical formation. In the midst of plenary lectures and research papers, three thoughts surfaced for me about the nature of liturgical formation in the late modern or postmodern world.

SL2015

The Separation of Liturgical Studies From The Study of the Scriptures, Theology, and Spirituality

It was a common motif among the keynote addresses, along with many of the short research papers, to bemoan the separation of liturgical scholarship from its roots in Scripture, theology, and spirituality. Liturgical studies, insofar as it has become a separate discipline, has at times become myopic in its treatment of formation. That is, as liturgical studies elevates participation in the liturgical rites of the Church to the privileged location of formation, the rest of Christian life is marginalized. As Patrick Pretot wrote in his major essay:

…the dream of a type of liturgical formation that would be able to find its principal support within the celebration itself is today confronted with many difficulties…liturgical formation needs to find new routes for our post- or ultra-modern era….these new ways must seek to draw together Scripture, theology and spirituality in such a way that formation must not be subordinated to the sole end of ritual performance…

The goal of the liturgical life is glorification of God and the sanctification of humankind. There is a danger that following the Second Vatican Council, the telos of liturgical prayer was nothing short of liturgical prayer itself. The next frontier of liturgical studies within the academic discipline of theology will be discerning an approach to liturgical formation that opens up the imagination to a “liturgical approach to life” that was itself pivotal to Romano Guardini, to name but one example. Liturgical studies, if it remains an insular discipline concerned about performance of rites alone, will lose its place in theology as that discipline, which unites academic rigor with pastoral practice.

Within Catholicism, perhaps, I would gather that we are entering the era of “lay liturgical scholarship,” which will facilitate this movement. In previous generations, it was the priest who studied liturgy. Yet, among the younger Roman Catholics present in Quebec, I encountered lay student after lay student after lay student, intrigued by connecting liturgical prayer with a form of life. The project of renewing liturgical studies will be a lay project in particular.

Not Liberal, Not Conservative But Identity Forming

CassocksIn her opening address to the conference, President Lizette Larson-Miller described a change in liturgical practice, especially among the young. She noted a group of Anglican seminarians, who would celebrate Vespers every Friday, concluding with the Latin Marian antiphon of the day. They did all this dressed in cassocks. Larson-Miller described this approach to liturgical prayer (not as conservative) but as related to the manner in which identity is formed in late modern life. To put on a cassock, to pray in this way, is to “write” one’s identity in Christ upon the body. Implicit in Larson-Miller’s analysis is the claim that one should not treat such young adults under the rubrics of conservative or liberal. Rather, they are seeking to perform Christian identity in a bodily way, one that perhaps was lost to a previous generation.

In conversations with many others throughout the conference, I came to see that this concern with “forming one’s identity” through “traditional” practice is in fact the way forward for many of our Christian traditions. I spoke to Anglicans, who noted the growth of their assemblies when they let the angels fly (as Walter Knowles described it). I spoke to Catholics and Anglicans also, who acknowledge the benefit of praying ad orientem not as a way of returning to some golden age but as the proper eschatological and liturgical posture before God. The desire to try on these “traditional” postures is not being performed as some conservative reaction to secularity. Rather, it is a way of marking oneself as Catholic, as Christian, as a liturgical pray-er.  I listened to an essay describing the music of Hillsong as moving toward a “traditional” articulation of what constitutes Christian salvation in their taking up the music of the Creed (for example).

In an era in which Christianity is increasingly marginalized (especially among those in Europe, Australia, and the United States), the taking up of traditional practice is a way of shaping an identity apart from alternative constructions of identity available to the postmodern person. It should be cultivated, not bemoaned.

The Spectre of the Secular: A Liturgical Evangelization

Although it was not always mentioned, the spectre of the secular was omni-present at our gathering in Quebec. At the literal level, we walked around a city in which church after church, convent after convent, has been converted into condo, library, or is in the midst of being sold. Further, in paper after paper, one encountered exasperation that the liturgy was not quite as formative of identity as we would hope. That the numbers of those attending our weekly liturgical rites were not as high as we would hope. That baptism or confirmation or Eucharist functioned as a kind of rite of passage, not transforming the life of the believer.

Here, what is required is not further academic research per se but a renewed approach to evangelization as a whole. What we study and preach is not a liturgical rite, a sacrament per se but Jesus Christ crucified and raised from the dead. Liturgical studies would benefit from greater contact with a Christo-centric missiology. As Josef Jungmann wrote in his Pastoral Liturgy:

…through worship the Christian shape of our picture of the universe can and should be made effective–our Christian consciousness. We might say too: awareness of Christ must be formed through worship. We must not underestimate the danger in which we stand in the free West. People do not want to be Godless, they even want to be Christians; but Christ–the personal Christ, the God-man scarcely counts. That God has come down to us in Him, has spoken to us through Him, that His coming was the turning point in the world’s history and that since then He has continued to be a decisive factor in the course of the world and its order, is more or less overlooked. We have only to think of how Christmas is celebrated publicly; to look at the average Christmas card (Easter cards are no better) to detect how unreal Christ has become, how little He is taken in earnest…That He is the keystone and remains in the structure of our very existence, that He alone is the bridge linking us with God, is no longer a living thought. Only this makes sense of faith, sacraments, grace, and the Church (338).

Liturgical prayer is not simply an object of study, an interesting footnote to historical theology. But is itself an encounter with the living Christ mediated through rites, making sense of history. The spectre of secularization is such that we forget this, seeing in the liturgy only book, only ritual action. Forgetting that what we do is itself an encounter with reality.

Leaving this conference, what I found was not a need for additional study of rites. But a renewed commitment to liturgical evangelization. Perhaps, the way that we will move forward ecumenically is through retrieving this approach to liturgical evangelization within each of our traditions. In this context, dialogue will take on a shared perspective that we seek to encounter the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, who has transformed the very meaning of history.

 

 

Living the Vocation of Love

Caitlan RangelCaitlan Rangel
3rd-year Master of Divinity student,
University of Notre Dame

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Editorial Note: The following reflection was delivered as part of Morning Prayer during the Center for Liturgy’s recent Symposium, Liturgy and Vocation. We are grateful for the author’s permission to post it here.

Brothers and sisters,
I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you,
which you received and in which you stand firm.
You are being saved by it at this very moment.
I handed on to you first of all what I myself received,
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures;
that he was buried and, in accordance with the Scriptures,
rose on the third day.
1 Corinthians 15:1–2a, 3–4

We can all be grateful for and humbled by St. Paul’s introductory sentence in today’s reading: “Brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and in which you stand firm.” St. Paul is leading early Christians and disciples today through an exercise in religious remembering. He is stirring our memories so that we might come to enter more fully into who we are as Christians and why we are Christians.

St. Paul’s first sentence is also a deeply vocational one. It prompts us not only to remember, but also to probe deep within. It begs us to ask ourselves: Do I live that Gospel in which I stand firm? How do the vows that I have made manifest in my daily life? How is the journey of seeking after Christ unfolding in my life?

If love of God and life in God prompted St. Paul’s encouragement for us to remember the Gospel, then love of God and life in God are also certainly elements in answering the vocational questions we have just asked. I would like to highlight two elements of God’s love and life found in today’s Morning Prayer [for the feast of St. Barnabas].urlFirst, God’s love and life is creative. The creative love of God is overwhelmingly evident in the Canticle from Daniel [Dan 3:57–88, 56]. This magnificent Canticle praises the Lord for all creation. The Lord has created an infinitely unique variety of heavenly beings, plants, animals, stars, vegetation, climates and land formations, all culminating in humanity.Because of this creative life-giving energy, we are exhorted to “Praise and exalt him above all forever.” Creation is not only a manifestation of God’s love, but also fosters the love of God within us that is expressed through praise.

Then in [today’s proper] Antiphon for Psalm 63,  we hear a Christic tone in the creative love of God: “Love one another as I have loved you.” As God has loved us through creation, through salvation history, and through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, we are to love one another. This is a creative and creating love. It brings life; it is relational; it is mysterious; it is expansive; it is joyful; it is faithful; it is perpetual; and we are invited to share in this creative love through our vocation to Christ and His Church.

Second, God’s love and life is sacrificial. God’s love is a love poured out, a love overflowing. We see this in creation and throughout salvation history, all culminating in Jesus Christ. jesus_washingAs the [proper] Antiphon for the Canticle [from Daniel] repeats from John 15:13: “There is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends.” It is perhaps this kind of love that we most closely associate with the gospel. We see Christ pour himself out in Scripture and come to know Christ poured out in our lives through the merciful love of others and the sacramental life of the Church.

Through the first sentence of today’s reading, St. Paul invites us into this reflective remembering and vocational questioning. Like a good guide, he leads us to the heart of our journey with the last sentence of today’s reading. He says, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried and, in accordance with the Scriptures, rose on the third day.” Actively remembering this kerygma that we have received leads us to enter into the mystery of God. It leads us to reflect on God’s mercy, forgiveness, fidelity and calling in our lives and in the life of the Church. Most importantly, it leads us to the person of Christ who is alive within each of our hearts. It is Christ who calls us, Christ who leads us, and Christ in whom we stand firm. Let us pray that we might live THIS, the heart of our shared vocation more fully each day in our lives as disciples.

At the Feet of and Entrusted to the Heart of Jesus

Hope BoettnerHope Bethany

University of Notre Dame, Class of 2015

Echo 12 Apprentice

This writing finds me in a familiar place, though at a different stage of life. I often come to sit at the feet of the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue on campus. When I came here as an undergraduate, I liked to think about sitting here as an image of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus—the type of quiet listening, spent sitting at the feet of Jesus, that we think of when we think about Jesus in the house of Martha and Mary.

Johannes Vermeer's painting of "Christ in the House of Mary and Martha"
Johannes Vermeer’s painting of “Christ in the House of Mary and Martha”

One day this past spring (maybe because of this writing job, in fact; it has made the wheels of my mind continually turn and try to catch ideas for writing), I realized that my mental picture of sitting at the feet of Jesus and sometimes trying to force the sentiments of peace that Mary might have found was overly idealistic. I hope and pray that there will be many times in my life of sitting at the feet of Jesus, quietly and at peace like Mary. But Mary of Bethany’s time at the feet of Jesus does not image for us the only time spent at the feet of Jesus.

These scenarios also did, and maybe they do so more powerfully.

The woman caught in adultery found herself at the feet of Jesus.

 

 

 

Mary Magdalen, pouring the anointing of oil on Jesus in sorrow for her sin, began by crying at the feet of Jesus and drying those tears with her hair.

 

 

 

 

And Mary, the mother of Jesus, had to spend hours at her Son’s feet while at the foot of the Cross, experiencing the agony of watching her Son die.

 

 

And so at another point, I realized that my thought process of sitting at the feet of the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue here on campus, and finding my way to it no matter what state of mind and heart I found myself, more closely mirrors the way that St. Margaret Mary Alacoque wrote about the scenarios in which we ought to entrust ourselves to the Sacred Heart of Jesus than it did to any time Mary of Bethany spent quietly at the feet of Jesus, as Martha bustled busily around the house.

St. Margaret Mary Alacoque—the saint to whom we believe that Jesus appeared and revealed his Sacred Heart—expresses the reality that our lives belong at the feet of Jesus, or, in keeping with the feast we celebrate today, entrusted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus:

This divine heart is an abyss of all blessings, and into it the poor should submerge all their needs. It is an abyss of joy in which all of us can immerse our sorrows. It is an abyss of lowliness to counteract our foolishness, an abyss of mercy for the wretched, an abyss of love to meet our every need.

Therefore, you must unite yourselves to the heart of our Lord Jesus Christ, both at the beginning of your conversion in order to obtain proper dispositions, and at its end in order to make reparation. Are you making no progress in prayer? Then you need only offer God the prayers which the Savior has poured out for us in the sacrament of the altar. Offer God his fervent love in reparation for your sluggishness. In the course of every activity pray as follows: “My God, I do this or I endure that in the heart of your Son and according to his holy counsels. I offer it to you in reparation for anything blameworthy or imperfect in my actions.”

Continue to do this in every circumstance of life. And every time that some punishment, affliction or injustice comes your way, say to yourself: “Accept this as sent to you by the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ in order to unite yourself to him.”

But above all preserve peace of heart. This is more valuable than any treasure. In order to preserve it there is nothing more useful than renouncing your own will and substituting for it the will of the divine heart. In this way his will can carry out for us whatever contributes to his glory, and we will be happy to be his subjects and to trust entirely in him.

Life belongs at the feet of Jesus, entrusted to his Sacred Heart, in all circumstances. In joy and in peace, yes: but also in sorrow, and especially in contrition for sin.

And what do the feet of Jesus and entrusting ourselves to his Sacred Heart have to do with anything about writing? Oblation editor Tim O’Malley asked Sam Bellafiore and me to write “wrap-up” pieces about what we have learned as undergraduate fellows and where we are headed. As became more and more epidemic as the year went on, I am late in writing (spilling ramen on my laptop and destroying it did not help this process; requiescat en pace, old laptop).

But I am grateful for this last year, in which I have been able to write for this blog as a job (it felt like I was cheating every time I entered hours). I am grateful for what I have learned about writing, about thinking of writing as a kind of ministry, about Tim and Carolyn’s senses of humor and patience (and the abilities Sam and I had in testing that patience). Writing can be a kind of ministry, I suppose. As I prepare to begin master’s level coursework in theology and to serve in parish ministry during the next two years, this writing—and this lesson of entrusting it all back to the heart of Jesus for his glory (and not for mine), will continue to be on my mind. Because, again, as St. Margaret Mary said:

This divine heart is an abyss of all blessings, and into it the poor should submerge all their needs. It is an abyss of joy in which all of us can immerse our sorrows. It is an abyss of lowliness to counteract our foolishness, an abyss of mercy for the wretched, an abyss of love to meet our every need.

May we give ourselves over to that “abyss of love” of the heart of Jesus more and more, entrusting ourselves to his will.

Seven Last Words: “I Thirst”

HopeHope Bethany ’15

Theology Undergraduate

Fellow, Center for Liturgy

I do not know what it is to be truly, desperately, physically thirsty. I know what it is to feel parched, perhaps–  in the way anyone who has ever spent too much time working outside on a hot day does, or those who can recall craving water after working out do. But as everyone who knows me can testify, my water bottle and I are perpetually attached at the hip; I am a spoiled member of a tiny percentage of humanity who has access to clean, safe, refreshing water at every moment, every day.  My water bottle is next size_550x415_haitito my bed while I sleep at night; it is often in my hand during the day; it is on my desk while in class; it is in the cupholder on the dorm treadmill each time I work out. Indeed, it is on the Starbucks table next to me as I write this. I do not know what it means to desperately thirst in the way that Jesus does in this moment of His passion.

We recognize that when Jesus hung from the Cross dying and said, “I thirst,” he was truly physically thirsting in a way that many of us probably have not experienced. Nothing had passed His lips since He drank from the chalice of His last supper the night before, and in the meantime He had suffered through His agony in the garden and all of the horrors leading up to His crucifixion. If we are ever tempted to forget how real Jesus’ humanity is and was, the descriptions of the passion and His acknowledgement, ‘I thirst,’ ought to shake us out of our nonchalance. Jesus hungered; He thirsted; He sweated; He bled; He fell and tripped; He wept.

But the meaning of “I thirst,” while important to help us understand the struggle that Jesus experienced in the fullness of suffering what it means to be a genuine (in all ways but sin) thirsting flesh-and-bone human being, is not the only way to think about this saying of Jesus’. St. Alphonsus Liguori (and a long string of Tradition in the Church) thinks about Jesus’ saying “I thirst” while hanging from the Cross in both a physical and a spiritual sense. He says in his Meditation on the Seven Last Words:

“Severe was this bodily thirst, which Jesus Christ endured on the Cross through His loss of Blood, first in the garden, and afterwards in the hall of judgment, at His scourging and crowning with thorns; and, lastly, upon the Cross, where four streams of blood gushed forth from the Wounds of His pierced hands and feet as from four fountains. But far more terrible was His spiritual thirst, that is, His ardent desire to save all mankind, and to suffer still more for us, as Blosius says, in order to show us His love. On this St. Laurence Justinian writes: “This thirst came from the fount of love.”

St. Alphonsus takes Jesus’ spiritual thirst to mean His desire to save mankind—a kind of thirst for the fulfillment of His mission, rooted in His love for us as He suffered. Knowing Jesus’ zeal for His Father’s will and the fact that He has not turned back is important; it makes sense that up to the last Jesus would have been ‘thirsting’ for His victory over death that would lead us into eternal life. I think there’s another layer to it, though. We sometimes use the term “spiritual dryness” to talk about struggling times in our lives of faith. Or we mention when we feel alone, wandering and unsure where life will lead, that we feel as if we are “in the desert.” In those times we feel as if we are in a lifeless place. There is sand and toil and maybe it looks like there is no end to the present struggle.

That united physical and spiritual understanding of thirst was never more truly realized as it is when Jesus suffered on the Cross and sorrowfully, desperately said, “I thirst.”

Gethsemane4-004Jesus is absolutely longing– spiritually thirsting— for God His Father. He has already demonstrated that He feels abandoned and alone. To say it is poignant or powerful is a gross understatement. He who was to be the water who would make us never thirst again, in the most sorrowful and suffering moments of His passion realizes and lives the words of all those who have suffered horrifically at the hands of the human condition. This Jesus knows what it is to feel utterly alone, thirsting physically but also desperately thirsting for companionship, for hope, for relief, for kindness from somewhere— and we might imagine for an end to the thirst and the pain. How tempting must it have been to at this time to give in to those who mocked and scorned Him, jeering at Him to come down from the Cross and save Himself.

When Jesus says, “I thirst,” the Word who was, who is, and who will always be—the Word who was there at the very creation of water and who Himself is the life giving water of eternal life–  is in this moment denied water in every single sense that we ever use it. Water as quenching physical thirst, water as cleansing, water as healing, water as life-giving, water as connected with baptism— in every single sense that we can think of it, Jesus longs for water and for His thirst to be quenched and is abjectly denied it.

There is a lot more we could say or should say. But I think that in Psalm 42, the psalmist expresses it far more eloquently, truthfully, and painfully than I ever could hope to. As we reflect on Jesus’ saying, “I thirst,” may we keep the psalmist’s words in mind, and be reminded that the psalmist who mourns, feeling abandoned, and suffers longingly for God also ends by saying, “Hope in God; I will praise Him still; my savior and my God.”

 

Psalm 42:

Like the deer that yearns
for running streams,
so my soul is yearning
for you, my God.

deer

My soul is thirsting for God,
the God of my life;
when can I enter and see
the face of God?

My tears have become my bread,
by night, by day,
as I hear it said all the day long:
“Where is your God?”

These things will I remember
as I pour out my soul:
how I would lead the rejoicing crowd
into the house of God,
amid cries of gladness and thanksgiving,
the throng wild with joy.

Why are you cast down, my soul,
why groan within me?
Hope in God; I will praise him still,
my savior and my God.

My soul is cast down within me
as I think of you,
from the country of Jordan and Mount Hermon,
from the Hill of Mizar.

Deep is calling on deep,
in the roar of the waters;
your torrents and all your waves
swept over me.

By day the Lord will send
his loving kindness;
by night I will sing to him,
praise the God of my life.

I will say to God, my rock:
“Why have your forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
oppressed by the foe?”

With cries that pierce me to my heart,
my enemies revile me,
saying to me all day long:
“Where is your God?”

Why are you cast down, my soul,
why groan within me?
Hope in God; I will praise him still,
my savior and my God.

Unto Us a Child is Born

Jessica Keating_headshotJessica Keating, M.Div.
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

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As part of our preparation for Christmas, the Institute for Church Life invites the Notre Dame and South Bend communities to a “Crèche Pilgrimage” this Sunday, from 2:30–4:30pm. quimper_saintsBeginning at the Eck Visitor Center, pilgrims will make the make their way to five locations on campus where a total of thirty crèches are on display. On loan from the Marian Library International Crèche Collection at the University of Dayton, home to thousands of crèches, the thirty crèches currently on display at Notre Dame invite us to meditate on the profound mystery of the Nativity and to encounter the ways in which men and women around the world have welcomed the intimacy and mystery of the Incarnation into their hearts.

In his lecture introducing the Notre Dame exhibit, “The Crèche: A Celebration of Christmas and Culture,” internationally renowned Marian scholar, Fr. Johann Roten, R.M. proposed that nativity scenes, as visible images of the mystery of the Incarnation, provide a deeply theological and cultural way of seeing. The Catholic tradition is a visible tradition; thus men and women of faith continually strive to make visible the Incarnation. Originating from icons of the Nativity and influenced by mystics and saints, such as St. Bridget, crèches communicate rich theological and ecclesial vision within their very structure.

The variety of ways in which the nativity has been depicted present particular facets and insights about the mystery of the Incarnation. According to Fr. Roten, the tradition of representing the nativity at the bottom of a mountain developed as way of visually representing that “in order to come into the world, all of creation had to become his.” Hans BladungThe Italian tradition of depicting the birth of the Christ-child among the city ruins, as Hans Baldung does in “Adoration of the Child” (see right) demonstrates the supersession of the pre-Christian world by Christ in the Incarnation. Nativities set against a vast landscape, such as “Nursing Mother Painted by St. Luke” (below) by Rogier van der Weyden, are intended to extend the viewer’s vision beyond the small audience gathered in adoration and to see that the entire world is called to adore the infant Christ. With fruit-laden trees, Giovanni di Paolo’s “Nativity and the Annunciation to the Shepherds” (below) shows us that even nature participates in the miracle of the Incarnation. Canadian crecheThe French tradition of depicting the entire village processing to adore at the manger, which is found in “The Santons of Charlevoix” (below) depicts ecclesial communion, the in-gathering of a diverse people—sailors, farmers, the local clergy, children—in unity around the infant Christ. Finally, some depictions of the nativity anticipate Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Like the Gospel narratives which were composed in light of the mystery of Christ’s Crucifixion and raising from the dead, these visual representations include elements which make available the multivalence of the incarnational mystery. The triptych panel at Saint Clare Cologne in Munich, for example, shows Mary and Joseph kneeling and pointing to the infant Christ, who lies swaddled in the manger. Interestingly though, the manager in this panel is also representative of the tomb and the altar. Saint Clare triptychThus in the piece below, the Incarnation of Christ is seen to anticipate His death and His presence in the Eucharist.

In the vast variety of nativities, we encounter the global inculturation of the Gospel, the welcoming of the Good News of Christ into the human heart. Fr. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., the founder of the University of Notre Dame, expresses our awe and wonder at the crèche:

The month of the Holy Infancy brings us in close contact with the Crib; Bethlehem is becoming daily more and more a delightful rendezvous to our faithful souls – a House of Bread in which every want of our eager and panting hearts is satisfied. Each time we approach it, in silence and in faith, we find in it the Divine Babe lying in the Manger, stretching out to us his loving little hands, soliciting our love and, as it were, saying with an accent of heavenly sweetness which none can resist: ‘Amen, I say to you, unless you become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. …’ Here is what fastens us to the mysterious Crib.  (Octave of the Epiphany, January 13, 1882)

We are invited into this most intimate and tender moment of family life, to draw close to the crèche and to meditate on the mystery of Word of God Who became a speechless infant, who took on our flesh, not in appearance, but in its fullness so that we might become like God.