As we celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple today, we contemplate the revelation of “the light [that] shines in the darkness” (Jn 1:5)—the “light revealed to the nations” (Lk 2:32) that “the darkness will not overcome” (Jn 1:5).
In the world today, evidence of the darkness is not difficult to find; it can be much more difficult to discern those places where the light still gleams. Yet, as Christians, we cling in faith to the truth that Jesus Christ is the true light—the light that has come into the world; the light that conquered the darkness of death precisely by entering into it and emerged victorious in a blaze of resurrected glory; the light that remains with us today through the gift of the Holy Spirit poured forth in the Church; the light that we who bear his name are called to share.
In today’s Gospel, we hear the aged Simeon proclaim his canticle of thanksgiving, prayed each and every night at the end of Compline. Simeon, too, lived in times that seemed to be overcome with darkness, and yet he never lost hope that the Messiah was coming. In the midst of darkness, he continually sought and awaited the light, and rejoiced when at last he held that light in his arms.
Arvo Pärt’s 2001 setting of the Canticle of Simeon—the Nunc Dimittis—captures this interplay between darkness and light in the kaleidoscopic change of colors, and it captures something of the patient waiting, the yearning for the light, and ultimately, the light’s triumph over darkness, even as it somehow acknowledges that the darkness is still very much present. It is fitting that, throughout the world, candles will be blessed today that will be used in liturgical celebration throughout the coming year (hence the occasional reference to this feast as Candlemas). May we who received the light of Christ at our Baptism continue to keep that flame burning brightly, setting it on a lampstand so that it might illuminate the darkness around us and draw all people to Christ, the light of the world.
Today we celebrate an unusual feast: the conversion of St. Paul. There are countless stories of other holy men and women who experienced profound conversion: St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Francis of Assisi, and in our own day Blessed Oscar Romero and Servant of God Dorothy Day. Indeed, one does not become a saint without experiencing not simply a momentary conversion but a lifetime of conversion, a continual turning away from sin and turning toward Christ. And yet St. Paul’s is the only conversion that appears on the liturgical calendar. Why? Because when Paul left Saul behind—the one who had made it his life’s mission to wipe out Christian communities—the entire trajectory of Christianity changed. After his conversion, Paul became the Apostle to the Gentiles, traveling and teaching and dying for the sake of spreading the faith to all peoples in all corners of the world, and in his epistles, he continues to draw souls to Christ even to this day.
In the first reading for today’s feast, we hear Paul himself relate the story of his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, a scene that has been famously depicted by many artists (twice by Caravaggio alone). In many cases, these paintings focus on the moment in which Saul falls to the ground as the catalytic moment of his conversion. This moment was indeed the beginning: Saul sees a blinding light, falls to the ground, and hears a voice he does not know asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 22:7; see also Acts 9:3ff). Yet, this moment was only the beginning. Saul did not rise from the ground as the fully-fledged Apostle to the Gentiles he would become. On the contrary, he was rendered blind and helpless by his encounter with the light of Christ, and it was only with the assistance of his companions that he was able to reach Damascus at all. Then, it was only with the help of Ananias that he regained his sight, discovered the truths of Christianity, and was initiated into the community through Baptism. In other words, Paul’s conversion that we celebrate today was not a just singular moment that could be captured in a painting or a snapshot; rather, beginning from that singular moment, his conversion encompassed a lifetime of turning away from his old ways in order to follow the way of Christ, the way of the Cross.
Felix Mendelssohn’s musical depiction of St. Paul’s conversion in his oratorio Paulus, op. 36 helps to capture this ongoing sense of conversion in a way that perhaps a painting cannot. Musical performance by its nature involves a journey through time, and as such, it can serve as a powerful metaphor for one’s journey through life. The story of St. Paul’s conversion unfolds over several movements in this oratorio, beginning in the fourteenth movement. This movement consists of two parts: in the first part, Acts 9:3–6 is proclaimed in a recitative (sung speech) by a tenor narrator, a baritone (Paul), and a three-part treble chorus (the voice of Jesus). The jagged tenor melody soars at the moment the narrator describes the blinding light. The strings create tension-filled harmonies through a technique called tremolo (literally meaning “trembling”). The hesitant baritone melody conveys the fear that must have overcome Saul. All of these elements work together to create an incredibly dramatic moment, translated from the German below:
And as he journeyed, he came near unto Damascus when suddenly there shone around him a light from Heaven: and he fell to the Earth;
and he heard a voice saying unto him: Saul! Saul! Why persecutest thou me? And he said: Lord! who art thou? and the Lord said to him:
I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutes. And he said, trembling and astonish’d:
Lord, what wilt thou have me do? The Lord said to him: Arise and go into the city,
and there thou shalt be told what thou must do.
What is perhaps most striking about this section is the way in which Mendelssohn chose to set the words of Jesus by using a three-part treble chorus, a marked departure from the model set forth by the Passion oratorios of Johann Sebastian Bach (who greatly influenced Mendelssohn), where the words of Jesus were sung by a bass soloist. The effect is stunning: the drama described above melts away as Jesus speaks; the tension is dissolved and the voice of the risen Christ is heard as something utterly luminous, radiant. Whereas in Caravaggio’s paintings we see the light enveloping Saul through the beauty of chiaroscuro, in Mendelssohn’s setting of Jesus’ words, we hear this light pierce through the darkness, and its radiance penetrates the listener’s heart just as it must have penetrated Saul’s. When we hear or read Jesus’ words proclaimed in Scripture, we might interpret his question to Saul as accusatory, as judgmental; but here, these words are set in such a way that we hear Jesus genuinely questioning this lost son of his. This is the Man of Sorrows speaking, the Good Shepherd himself reaching out to a lost sheep so that he might be brought into the fold. In setting the words of Jesus this simple, vulnerable way, Mendelssohn makes a profound theological statement, calling to mind to the self-emptying love of Christ wherein power is made perfect in weakness. In a way, the unexpected vulnerability of this music hearkens back to the Incarnation itself, when the eternal Word stripped himself of glory to be born of the Virgin, as well as the Passion and Death of Jesus, when the Word made flesh emptied himself all the more for our sakes by enduring a horrific and humiliating death in order to redeem the world from sin.
It is this gentle, merciful beauty that attracts, that draws Saul in, that illuminates his heart even as his eyes are blinded; it is the beauty of his encounter with Christ that provides the catalyst to Saul’s conversion. Yet neither Saul’s story nor Mendelssohn’s oratorio ends with this moment of conversion; Saul must arise and follow the command of Jesus by proceeding into Damascus to find Ananias. Saul must become Paul. And to do this, he needs the love of Christ shown forth in the merciful witness of those around him.
It is at this point that Mendelssohn’s music itself turns, transitioning into a triumphant choral response to the narrative that has just unfolded. Throughout the oratorio, the chorus is designated in the score as Stimme der Christenheit, or the Voice of Christendom, and so it gives voice to the Christian community, encouraging Paul on the road toward Christ. The text Mendelssohn set for this movement (Is 60:1–2) also makes a theological statement by providing a beautiful complement to what has preceded it:
Arise, shine! For thy light is come,
and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and gross darkness [thick clouds] the people. But shall arise upon thee, the Lord,
and his glory shall be seen upon thee.
This is the moment of Paul’s illumination; he has been visited by the very light of Christ, the glory of the Lord has shone upon him, and the Christian community is now exhorting him to arise (as we hear in the glorious ascending melodies) and follow that light (as we hear in the intricate imitation and echoes) so that God’s glory might be seen not only upon him, but through him as well. And for us listening, this music can provide a moment of illumination as well. Just as the Scriptures are never read as a simple story but are proclaimed so that they may take root in our hearts, so too is this music a moment meant to serve as a proclamation, reminding us that we are on our own road to Christ, that we must allow his light to heal our spiritual blindness and be converted ourselves. This music serves as a reminder that, in our Christian journey, we are both Paul and the chorus: called to lifelong conversion and called to encourage others along their path of discipleship.
As we listen to the voice of Christ and the voice of our fellow Christians represented in the chorus, may we pray for the grace of continual conversion for ourselves, and for the conversion of those who continue to persecute Christ in the members of His Body throughout the world. May we hear in this music the radiance of Christ’s light and allow it to permeate our hearts all the more deeply, so that we, like St. Paul, might continue on our journey toward Christ.
Every year, I lament the fact that there simply aren’t enough days in the Christmas season to listen to all of the incredible music that helps us enter the exultant hymn of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus. Let’s face it: there’s a reason we secretly start listening to Christmas music around the middle of Advent (or that we at least really want to). Christmas music is sacred music par excellence. Whether it’s a traditional carol like Hark! The Herald Angels Sing or Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming, or a chant like Of the Father’s Love Begotten, or a more recent addition to the repertoire like Morten Lauridsen’s anthem O Magnum Mysterium, or Alfred Burt’s carol Jesu Parvule, the songs of Christmas make real the idea of “beauty ever ancient, ever new,” a phrase that comes from St. Augustine’s Confessions as he addresses God himself. Some may balk at this analogy between the earthly beauty of music and the divine beauty, but I maintain that one can indeed use Augustine’s description with reference to Christmas music, because its material beauty points beyond itself to the divine beauty present in the very mystery this music helps us celebrate.
On the one hand, Christmas music does seem ancient: we know it intimately. It has accompanied us to the manger each and every year. And yet, on the other hand, it is indeed ever new: we never seem to grow tired of it. The reason for this, I believe, is that every year, we approach this season and this music different people than we were at this time last year, and as a result, though the music remains the same, we will hear it differently. This is the gift of a set repertoire of carols and hymns and chants, and the gift of the new additions to the repertoire that have slowly and steadily found a home within this treasury over time. The music of Christmas allows us to return to it year after year after year, and, like a wellspring, it continually slakes our thirst for beauty and mystery and meaning.
So, with the vast breadth of music, how does one choose a single piece to encapsulate the Christmas season? With the understanding that there is not ever going to be one piece that does so, but with the hope that, at least for this year, this one will help unfold the mystery a little more fully. With that, I offer Egil Hovland’s The Glory of the Father. I came across this piece as an undergraduate member of the St. Isidore Catholic Student Center Choir at my alma mater, Kansas State University, and I have come back to it every Christmas since then. This piece, written in 1957 by Norwegian composer Egil Hovland, uses as its text excerpts from the stunning prologue of St. John’s Gospel. This passage is proclaimed on Christmas at the Mass during the day, which perhaps seems an unusual choice. There is no mention of a journey to Bethlehem or a manger, no angels singing or shepherds dropping in. Instead, what we have is light. The light of the human race. The light that shines in darkness. The light that no darkness can overcome. The true light which enlightens everyone. The true light that was coming into the world. And what is this light? St. John tells us.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.
This text serves as the beginning and end of Hovland’s stunning yet simple piece. In constructing the piece this way, Hovland is holding up the Incarnation—Jesus Christ Himself—as the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. The music in these sections is open—hollow sounding and yet somehow also full. The first words of the piece—“The Word became flesh”—are sung with a chant-like rhythm using the interval of a perfect fifth, one of the two intervals used in the medieval period to create the first instances of harmony. The other interval was the perfect fourth, and Hovland ends the phrase “dwelt among us” on this sonority (the italics designate the syllables on which this interval occurs). Why mention this? To demonstrate that the openness of the piece comes from a compositional technique that signaled the birth of harmony as we now know it. A beauty ever ancient. On the other hand, the composer uses close harmonies and controlled dissonance (clashing notes) to create a sense of fullness, particularly when the choir sings “We beheld the glory of the Father” the second time. A beauty ever new.
At the heart of the piece, Hovland returns to the beginning of the prologue: “In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God.” The piece takes on more life and movement here, indicating the life and movement of the eternal Word, the second Person of the triune God. With the text “In him was life,” a stirring drama builds, and suddenly, a tension is introduced with the phrase “and the life was the light of men.” The startling chord on the word “men” indicates a new presence: darkness. Through the sin of humanity, darkness enters the world and threatens to blot out the life of the Word, “the light of men.” This darkness continues as the composer holds up for our attention a reality that we would rather forget as we celebrate Christmas: “He came to his own, and his own received him not.” This child, the Word made flesh, the true light which enlightens everyone, was rejected by those whom he called his own. Is still rejected.
And yet, immediately after this sobering, convicting statement, the composer returns to the opening section, indicating that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). Moreover, the abrupt shift from the darkness back to the light indicates that the glory of the Incarnate Word—“the glory as of the Father’s only Son”—is not contingent upon our acceptance of Him. The light has come into the world. It is offered as gift for those with the eyes to see it, and “to those who did accept him”—who accept him still today—“he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). This season, as we sing the mysteries of the Incarnation, may we open our eyes to see and our hearts to welcome the light of the world, the Word made flesh, the glory of the Father.
Each year on the feast of the Holy Family, I wonder about Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. I wonder about how we as a Church think about the Holy Family. I wonder how to make sense of their family in light of my own family, or in light of the other families whom I know and love. A traditional (very well-intentioned) bent of homilies on this day sometimes takes the following approach:
“Mary was the perfect mother. Moms, be Mary. Joseph was the perfect example of a father. Dads, be Joseph. And kids, young Jesus didn’t disobey Mary and Joseph. Be Jesus.”
Hearing this sort of approach, my slight cynicism makes me think:
“Yeah, no kidding… TWO of the three members of the Holy Family were literally sinless and the THIRD one lived with TWO sinless people. How does that even begin to compare?”
The “follow their example” approach to the feast makes sense, at least partially. The Holy Family was obviously a model for our own families, but a perspective that leaves the Holy Family as only a perfect model can seem saccharine and disconnected from reality. None of us come from sinless families. Some of us come from families aching from recent hardship or loss; all come from families with a variety of dysfunctions; some of us come from families whose stories are too difficult and complex to describe in short detail.
This year, my contemplation of the feast of the Holy Family has been shaped by my first five months in parish ministry. As I thought about this feast for the purposes of teaching catechetically about the family and about the Holy Family, I began to explore different angles. I have noticed an ache for community in my own parish, among young adults, among older people missing their children and grandchildren, with young moms and dads— and this is not merely a reality in my parish alone.
I came across some articles this year that made me realize the loneliness that people carry and all the different ways in which many of us try to fill that loneliness. This article speaks about millennials choosing to live in shared housing with other married couples; another article discusses how parishes can reach out to support young mothers and young families who may be far from their families of origin. These articles, other sources, and conversations all feed into one reality that is a reality in all places and for all families: the longing, desire and human need for community. This need is all the more acute in a world of families who live far from one another or for those whose family does not seem to even compare with the Holy Family.
Dorothy Day famously said, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love, and that love comes with community.”
On this year’s feast of the Holy Family, for the sake of our own families and the sake of our own Church, what if we looked at the Holy Family not as a moralistic tale of a perfect family, but rather as a model of community? Mary and Joseph lived through an unplanned pregnancy and fleeing hardship together. They lost Jesus in Jerusalem and searched for Him together. “And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man,” living in community with Mary and Joseph (Luke 2:52).
Seeing the Holy Family as a model of community and bearing with one another through loneliness, hardship– or in good times for that matter– does not mean our families are sinless. This does not mean our families are without illnesses. Nor does this mean we can label families who may be hurt and broken as failures. What it does mean is this: when we call the Holy Family a model for our own families, we must have a more nuanced idea of what we mean by the family as “holy.” That idea would do well both to bring in a sense of community and to develop what we mean when we refer to any family (including the Holy Family) as “holy.”
For this, since we often refer to the family as the “domestic Church,” I find this insight from Ratzinger’s “Introduction to Christianity” particularly compelling.
“The Church is not called “holy” in the Creed because her members, collectively and individually, are holy, sinless men— this dream, which appears afresh in every century, has no place… however movingly it may express a human longing….
The holiness of the Church consists in that power of sanctification which God exerts in her in spite of human sinfulness. We come up here against the real mark of the “New Covenant”: in Christ, God has bound himself to men, has let himself be bound by them.
The New Covenant no longer rests on the reciprocal keeping of the agreement; it is granted by God as grace that abides even in the face of man’s faithlessness. It is the expression of God’s love, which will not let itself be defeated by man’s incapacity but always remains well disposed toward him, welcomes him again and again precisely because he is sinful, turns to him, sanctifies him, and loves him (Ratzinger 341).
These words also apply to our imperfect families and, by extension, our imperfect parish families. Or in the words of Pope Francis:
“So great was His love, that He began to walk with humanity, with His people, until the right moment came, and He made the highest expression of love – His own Son. And where did He send his son – to a palace? To a city? No. He sent him to a family. God sent him amid a family. And He could do this, because it was a family that had a truly open heart. The doors of their heart opened.”
The holiness and dignity of the family, like the holiness of the Church, does not stand merely on the behavior of individuals. The holiness of family, and the holiness of striving to be a holy family, stands upon the fact that by choosing to enter into a family, Christ has forever sanctified all families. Seeing Francis’ and Ratzinger’s perspective on the family and on the Church may help us to see the Holy Family not merely as a model of moral perfection, but rather as a model of holy community that knows how to “love one another with mutual affection, anticipate one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10).
Last weekend, my Dad joined me in St. Louis for his birthday gift – a trip to a St. Louis Blues game. We reveled in the buzz of energy and the crisp air. Though we are far from experts on the game, we joined others in raucous cheering and shouting – my dad delighting while I cowered uncomfortably at the occasional lingering fight. We enjoyed a highly anticipated evening together.
About halfway through the second period, my old friend anxiety showed up and demanded a space. It manifested itself as it often does during sporting events, where giant clocks peer obtrusively down from a jumbotron. Though I found joy in being present at the game, I became obsessed with that clock. I started my own internal countdown, calculating what time the game might end. My focus shifted away from the game itself and rushed toward the moment when the clock would hit zero and I’d be on to the Next Big Thing.
This temptation often follows me through life. I begin my day or any particular project with a focus on being present. Though my intentions are good, my focus slips and I begin planning ahead – ignoring the moment I’m in to think about what the next one will be like. While this is fueled by my struggle with anxiety, I doubt I’m alone. A look at my Facebook news feed confirms this. My friends and I post countdowns, making sure everyone knows the number of days or hours until this Big Event we can’t wait for – whether it’s the premiere of Star Wars, a party, or the end time of our last exam. But the next day, we’re looking at TimeHop and thinking nostalgically about how fast time has gone by, gushing about how much time has passed since we were freshmen or since the Last Big Thing. We become so consumed with looking forward that we forget to enjoy the moment as it occurs.
This tendency presents a particular danger during the season of Advent, even on the very last day of this season. Each year, I enter into Advent with a special prayer practice or a resolution of sorts. This year, it was reading each day’s Mass readings in the morning and writing down a phrase to take with me throughout the day. Others may mark the time by setting out an Advent wreath, or taking a devotional book from their parish. Regardless of the practice, we begin Advent resolved to wait in prayerful silence, remembering the patience and silence of those days before Christ’s birth.
But then, we lose focus. Christmas music comes on the radio, shopping begins on Thanksgiving Day, and we pull out the Christmas countdown calendars. Gone is the prayerful, focused waiting. We race toward Christmas, thinking about how many days and moments until we get our presents, or have that party. We throw away proper preparation, and when the moment we are awaiting arrives, we have no idea how we got there. We are not properly prepared to receive the victory. We haven’t postured ourselves to understand what this win means, to know where it came from.
If we wish to truly celebrate the birth of Christ and His entrance into our lives, we have to pay attention to the present moment. We must practice the posture of waiting and use Advent as a time to discover the longing for Christ in our hearts as it exists right now – not as it will in a month, or a year. In our prayer of presence, we re-order our desires as we wait patiently. We learn that preparation is not rushing past dates on the calendar, but an intentional focus on the present moment, where we simply listen and exist. Advent becomes a time of practice. Through prayerful silence and patient waiting, we are formed into Christmas people, who celebrate in the fullness and joy of the faith we have come to know and understand.
In the hockey arena, I used the practices I learned in therapy to push anxiety away and find the puck on the ice, not the time on the scoreboard. As a result, I paid attention, returned to the moment, and saw all three Blues goals. In this season of Advent, my constant prayer has been that I may listen for the voice that calls me to do the same, so that when Christmas comes, I’ll know how I got here.
Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt, Sisters of Mary
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame Contact Author
Christmas is a feast for families, beginning with the Holy Family. But is it also a feast of the Family of the Holy Trinity? The “Trigonometry” featured in this year’s display of Christmas crèches at the University of Notre Dame answers “yes” to this question.
Trigonometry (from Greek trigōnon, “triangle” and metron, “measure”) is a branch of mathematics investigating the relationships of lengths and angles in triangles. For many of us this science can be compared to the proverbial book with seven seals with which we have become acquainted while in High School. We may still remember that the sides of a right-angle triangle and the angles between those sides have fixed relationships. Provided we know at least the length of one side and the value of one angle, we can determine all other angles and lengths. Trigonometry and its functions are implemented for example in satellite navigation systems.
Christian iconography, too, avails itself of this science when portraying the Mystery of the Triune God in the form of a triangle. This depiction, as limited and fragmentary as it may be, can tell us something about the “Divine Trigonometry.” The triangle’s equilateral sides symbolize the coequal nature of the three divine persons (est), while the maximal separation of the vertices highlights their distinction (nonest). Hence, the rapport within the communion of the Triune God is absolute communion and simultaneous free unfolding of the differences of the Persons and their attributes. Moreover, the Trinity’s modus of interaction in pursuit of the common plan and goal (creation, redemption, sanctification) enables us to better, though never completely, comprehend the Revelation about the Triune God! The Council of Florence explained this Trinitarian mode of being as follows:
Through this unity…the Father is completely in the Son and completely in the Holy Spirit;
the Son is completely in the Father and completely in the Holy Spirit;
he Holy Spirit is completely in the Father and completely in the Son (DS 1331).
Hence, the three distinct divine Persons are the same Being, the same Life, the same God, and are united in a communion of Love. The reciprocal rapport unique to the Divine Trigonometry is described by the Greek Fathers as perichoresis (round dance) and by the Western Fathers as circumincessio (mutual indwelling). Taking our bearings from this tradition, we observe complete openness and receptiveness among the Persons of the Trinity to each other. In their Being each contains the others and is contained by them. Revelation permits us to define each of the three Persons exclusively on the basis of how they relate to the other two. In the words of St. John Paul II, “the Father is pure Paternity, the Son is pure Sonship, and the Holy Spirit is pure Nexus of Love of the two, so that the personal distinctions do not divide the same and unique divine nature of the three.”
The reverse of the current $1 bill shows an unfinished pyramid topped by the Eye of Providence within a triangle. This portrayal of God’s Eye discloses another dimension of the Divine Trigonometry. Dating back to the Middle-Ages, the triangle with a pointed top indicates the unique position of God Father within the Trinity. St. Irenaeus speaks of the Father’s ‘two hands,’ the Son and the Spirit. The Father may be seen as the ultimate authority in his fatherly compassionate love which is the principle cause of God’s activity. The Father is the sender of the Son and the Holy Spirit, but does not himself go. Thus, the Divine Trigonometry has its origin in the Trinity’s eternal plan and extends from the ineffable communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The classic example of this divine economy is the Incarnation celebrated on March 25 and made visible nine months later on Christmas. Its dynamics is revealed through the Scriptures as a bonum diffusivum sui (good diffusive of itself). It is a love that does not remain closed in a perfect circle of light and glory but offered as a creative, self-gift. God’s Love proceeds from the Father to the Son who by his “departure” transmits to the Holy Spirit the new salvific self-giving of God. The Triune God, however, did not want to accomplish this plan without the cooperation of humanity.
Luke’s account of the Annunciation recounts the Trinity in dialogue with Mary of Nazareth. As a result of Mary’s free and loving cooperation with God’s plan the total gift of herself in undivided love is rewarded with God’s gift to her, manifest in her divine maternity, and culminating in their mutual Gift – Jesus Christ!
The Divine Trilogy provided that the eternal Son of God be born and sheltered in the love of a human family which hence becomes a mirror of God’s communion. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI expressed it this way, “The human family is, in a certain sense, the icon of the Trinity because of the love between its members and the fruitfulness of that love.” In other words, the divine trigonometry seeks a continuation and reflection on earth.
Among the 30 crèches exhibited presently on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, one conveys this holy trigonometry. The Swiss nativity set designed by Elizabeth Kuchen can be admired at the Morris Inn. Its foundation is a triangle-symbol of the Trinity- surrounded by daisies arranged in groups of three. Joseph, Mary and the manger with Baby Jesus form a triangle; the same holds true for the magi kings surrounding them. The A-framed shelter, complemented by its firm foundation is triangular and even the smoke—or is it a lightning rod?—on top of the roof resembles an open triangle. The idyllic scene radiating simplicity and harmony allows the onlooker to be drawn to the fruit of an existence founded in God’s Trigonometry. At the points of each triangle stands a person-free and autonomous-yet centered on the other, particularly on the Child in the manger. Each one has a unique role and mission and therefore can complement the others. Above all, each figure is supported by the base—symbol for the triune communion—on which they are standing. For that reason, this holy trigonometry mirrors the Divine Trigonometry!
But there is still more! Did you notice the four figures (only two are visible in the above photo) standing in the background? Who are they? The answer is up to our imagination. Allow me to share my thoughts. The number four alludes to a finite, transitional state which is perhaps the reason why they are placed on a lower level. Could they be the representatives of those who approach and observe this Divine Mystery skeptically, yet longingly? The four figures are in need of a lift in order to become part of the harmony and peace of the Holy Trigonometry, lest they turn around and get lost in the darkness! Authentic holy trigonometry—a communion in which each is completely open to the other—moves towards the disenfranchised. The Divine Child at the center of the crèche is the measuring stick for each one of us. From His Incarnation to His death He consumed himself by inviting all into the communion of the Divine Trigonometry. As his brothers and sisters we are invited to do likewise. The Father needs us to be His arms in the world today. Are you ready to be sent and to bring the Gift of the Father to our world in darkness? Then peace and joy will triumph and the Miracle of Love is celebrated in heaven and on earth!
The Trinity’s Embrace – God’s Saving Plan. A Catechesis on Salvation History (Boston 2002), 183.
Candidate, Doctor of Musical Arts, University of Notre Dame
Have you read “Revelation,” a short story by Flannery O’Connor? It is the story of hers that I find the most moving, and it is digestible even by readers of the weakest constitutions when it comes to the Southern grotesque. In sum – and without ruining it for you – “Revelation” is the story of a woman whose understanding of herself in the eyes of God is turned upside down. She is made to see the greater faults in herself and the hidden virtues in others, and in an ending that I think is one of the most beautiful in fictional literature, O’Connor describes the fullness of this woman’s revelation; it entails the strange and ineffable grandeur of the Kingdom of God. I would encourage you to go here and read the story right this very minute. Please do. I will not be upset if you stop reading this post.
It did not occur to me that “Revelation” was an Advent story until I read the Gospel for Monday in the first week of Advent. It was the passage from Matthew in which the Roman centurion asks the Lord to heal his sick servant. The centurion is the man from whom we have received a congregational response of the Mass: “Lord, I am not worthy, that You should enter under my roof…” What I had never taken notice of before is the entirety of Jesus’ response to the soldier’s request. He of course says, “In no one in Israel have I found such faith.” But then He says, “I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 8:11).
The Lord seems to be remarking that the table of the Heavenly Banquet will be filled with more than just the usual suspects. Whenever I hear the words “east and west” in Scripture, I immediately think of the three kings; those exotic, noble men, most likely unaware of the salvation history of the people of Israel, coming from the Orient to adore a baby simply because they knew a cosmic event when they saw one. For all their regality and fineness, they carried within them humble hearts, awake and ready to receive the Wonder to which the star had led them. These men of Oriental nobility are not the type of folks you would have thought would have been among the first to recognize and believe in the Messiah. They share that quality in common with the Roman centurion.
A few days later, on the Second Sunday of Advent, we heard the words “east and west” once again:
“Up, Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God” (Bar. 5: 1-9).
These words are from the first reading, and they hearken to a lesser known “O Antiphon” that was sung in the medieval Church. It is the antiphon dedicated to Jerusalem, the Heavenly City:
O Hierusalem! Civitas Dei summi, leva in circuitu oculos tuos; et vide Dominum tuum, quia jam veniet solvere te a vinculis.
“O Jerusalem! City of the great God: lift up thine eyes round about, and see thy Lord, for he is coming to loose thee from thy chains.”
Jerusalem, the Heavenly City, is the destination of all peoples, from all sides of the world. Every single person of every single race, country, and creed, is meant to be a child of this Kingdom. And Jesus seems to want to tell us that the strongest faith is found in the most surprising of places. His own experience certainly reflects this: He struggled over and over again to communicate the truth of His mission to the religious leaders in His midst who were supposedly of a faith that had been waiting for a Savior for hundreds of years. Then, out of nowhere comes the centurion, graced with a faith in Jesus that, according to a history of religion, had no business being there. “Never make the mistake of thinking you have pegged people,” the Lord seems to say. “The sheep who hear my voice may not look the way you think they would.”
You really must read Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” because it situates the universality of the heavenly Jerusalem in the daily environment of a doctor’s office, a conversation amongst strangers, and the relationship between a Southern woman and the people who work for her. As Advent draws to a close, this story can help us to see how we may have made the perfect Christian believer in our own image and likeness. We expect the population of the Holy City to be widely made up of people like ourselves, but the Sciptural characters of the Christmas season show us that such an idea could not be further from the truth. On the heavenly day we arrive at the gates of the Holy City, our brothers and sisters from the east and the west will astonish us in their strange, unpredictable, and glorious variety. O Jerusalem, eternal home of us all, let us welcome our coming Lord with joy!
Given both my Mexican-American descent and my strong devotion to Mary, it may come as a shock to some when I say that I have not always loved Our Lady of Guadalupe. Indeed, there was a time when her image was nothing more to me than a pious painting, an image that had been taken up ad nauseam by my ancestral people. It probably goes without saying that the Mexican people have a great love for Our Lady of Guadalupe. They hang her image on the walls of their churches and place her in their homes and businesses. They light candles, which bear her image, and place decals of her image on the back of their trucks. A great number of men and women have even gotten tattoos of Our Lady of Guadalupe placed somewhere on their bodies. And just to give one recent example of how inextricable she is from Mexican culture, her image was briefly used a few times in last year’s animated film The Book of Life, a film that is centered on the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos. yet makes no reference to God or Christianity throughout. All of this is to say that the Mexican people have a special love for Our Lady of Guadalupe, and she herself is inseparably linked to Mexican religious and cultural identity.Granted, it is easy to understand why they love her. In December of 1531, she appeared to the humble, Nahuatl Indian, Juan Diego, at Tepeyac, a hill right outside of what is today Mexico City. Her mission to him was rather simple; she wanted him to go to the bishop and tell him to build a hermitage dedicated to her right there at Tepeyac. She wanted it built so that all people could come to it and receive her love, compassion, help and protection. Being only a lowly Indian, Juan Diego knew that his task would be difficult, but at the Virgin’s request he took up her mission. After he had twice failed to convince the bishop of the truth of the Virgin’s request, Our Lady of Guadalupe sought to aid him through the provision of a sign: Juan Diego was to go up the hill and pick the Spanish flowers, which had miraculously grown there in the middle of winter, place them in his tilma, in order to carry and to show them to the bishop. He did as was told. And when he had showed them to the bishop she provided him with another miracle as a sign of the abundance of her love: as he released the flowers, her image miraculously appeared on his tilma. The fact that she herself had provided her own image (that is to say, that it was not painted by human hands) and that the image has miraculously been preserved to this day has led the Mexican people to exclaim: “She has not done so for any other nation.”
It is a beautiful story, to be sure. And even though I heard that story many times in my life, (for several years my older brother had played Juan Diego in our parish play), I could not bring myself to embrace Our Lady of Guadalupe in any particular way.
Perhaps it was because she was so uniquely tied to one particular people, even if it was a people that I am descendant from, that I felt that she lacked a universal quality that I imagined Our Lady of Lourdes or an Our Lady of Fatima had. How can a devotion that seemed so limited, so incarnated within a very distinct culture be considered so great?
Or perhaps my aversion to her was more precisely based on the fact that, even though I am of Mexican descent, I do not speak Spanish, have no rhythm, and do not identify with many characteristics of popular Latino culture, and thus, felt that I could not connect with such a figure as Our Lady of Guadalupe. I thought that to claim her would be to claim for myself an identity that I struggled to fully own.
So, what changed? Why is it that in the past year and a half I have probably talked more about Our Lady of Guadalupe than any other image of Mary?
I do not know that I can describe it any other way than to say that she began to call out to me. I began to feel compelled to look at her image, an image that had so many times before left me unimpressed. The more I beheld her image, the more I found myself drawn to contemplation of it. And thus, I began to realize that what I had taken to be a simple rendition of the Virgin Mary within a primitive culture was in reality an icon of the universal mystery of a mother’s love.
Struck by this realization, I desired to return to the narrative of the Guadalupan events, to see if there was anything within the story itself that I had dismissed as unsophisticated. And, of course once again I had found so much beauty and depth in what appeared to be a simple text, much more than the purposes of this post would allow me to reflect on. But there is one thing that I wish to share, something which each time I read it moves me to my core, and it is Our Lady of Guadalupe’s mission as stated in her own words. She says:
“I very much want and ardently desire that my hermitage be erected in this place. In it I will show and give to all people all my love, my compassion, my help, and my protection, because I am your merciful mother and the mother of all nations that live on this earth who would love me, who would speak with me, who would search for me, and who would place their confidence in me. Their I will hear their laments and remedy and cure all their miseries, misfortunes, and sorrows.” (emphasis mine)
It is particularly this message that makes Our Lady of Guadalupe so special. It is a message that could perhaps more simply be restated in the form of a question: “Will you let me be your mother?” It is a question she asks to all people, to all nations. She places no restrictions and she makes no conditions. Despite her appearance within a particular culture and within a particular time, it is a question that requests a universal response.
If perhaps, like me, you have ever had trouble growing close to Our Lady of Guadalupe because she came incarnated within a particular culture you do not recognize as your own, I encourage you to spend time with her in prayer this advent season. Though she may have done for the Mexican people what had not been done for any other nation, take comfort in the fact she did this as a sign of the depth of her love for her children of all nations. Join in the celebrations at your parish, contemplate her image, which she left on Juan Diego’s tilma. And rejoice in the fact that we have a mother who, like her Son, is no stranger to our own particular needs.
 This quotation is taken from verses 23-25 of the Nican Mopohua, the foundational text for the traditional Guadalupan events written in the native Nahuatl. For more an English translation and more on this text, see Mother of the New Creation by Fr. Virgilio Elizondo.
Aimee Shelide Mayer, M.A.
Coordinator, Echo Recruitment & Admissions University of Notre Dame
Collen Mayer, M.Div., MTS, MBA Director, Social Services Catholic Charities of Tennessee
Triune Lord, wondrous community of infinite love, teach us to contemplate you in the beauty of the universe, for all things speak of you.
Awaken our praise and thankfulness
for every being that you have made.
Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined
to everything that is. —“A Christian Prayer in Union with Creation” (Laudato Si’ §246)
Sometimes it is hard to see that “all things speak of” God’s infinite love. During this busy pre-Christmas season of preparing final papers, projects, menus, mailing lists, guest lists, and gift lists, our focus is often turned away from God present in all of creation. But this Advent, we not only have the launching of the Jubilee Year of Mercy to ground us in praise for God’s all-encompassing love; we also have Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, Care for our Common Home, to guide us on how to live Advent anew this year. And with the current summit on climate change occurring, we would be remiss to not prayerfully contemplate the sacramentality of God’s creation, as well as our ongoing complicity in its degradation.
Laudato Si’ provides both a theological rationale and concrete suggestions for nourishing and healing our relationship with God, others, and all of creation. This Advent, we are thus prompted to examine our lives in each of these three areas and note how we might better care for all of creation in light of Pope Francis’ pleading.
Caring for our relationship with God
In his encyclical, Pope Francis addresses not only Christians, but “every person living on this planet” in order to “enter into dialogue about our common home” (LS §3), a home created in love by the triune God:
The Father is the ultimate source of everything, the loving and self-communicating foundation of all that exists. The Son, his reflection, through whom all things were created, united himself to this earth when he was formed in the womb of Mary. The Spirit, infinite bond of love, is intimately present at the very heart of the universe, inspiring and bringing new pathways. (LS §238)
By reflecting on our relationship with the earth this Advent, we are necessarily led to examine our relationship with the triune God who created the universe and all it contains. Indeed, it seems that how we handle the gift of creation necessarily reflects our sentiments for the Giver. By responding to creation in love, we express our love and praise for God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Consider the following simple Advent practices to cultivate a sense of gratitude to God for creation:
Choose to incorporate a new spiritual practice from Laudato Si’ (e.g. spiritual reading, period of silence, work outside, etc.);
Spend quiet time enjoying creation (e.g. go on a walk, run, bike ride, hike, etc.);
Prepare for Mass by reading the Gospel and reflecting on it in light of Laudato Si’;
Honor the Sabbath by “fasting” from technology (computer, phone, TV, tablet, etc.);
Pray for an end to war and violence, including destruction of creation;
Examine your conscience to discern ways you have failed to care for creation; celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation; and
Include a prayer of gratitude to God for creation during grace before meals; commit to not wasting food during Advent.
Caring for others
Pope Francis further challenges us to see how our care for all of creation extends to how we care for all members of our human family—especially the poor. In his encyclical, he writes of the interconnectedness of all relationships:
We cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships . . . A correct relationship with the created world demands that we not weaken this social dimension of openness to others . . . Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence. (LS, §119)
For many, the Advent and Christmas season brings human relationships into a new focus as families and friends gather from distant cities to celebrate together. Fond memories, as well as unhealed wounds, often surface during such moments. For some, these are times full of joy and love. Yet, for those who have lost or become estranged from family, these weeks can be heavy and hard. How might we care for the Body of Christ this year in light of Pope Francis’ wisdom? Here are some possible in-roads this Advent:
Pray for healing from a wound you are carrying related to a family member or loved one;
Pray for a specific group in need each week of Advent (e.g. refugees, immigrants, prisoners, unborn, terminally ill, etc.);
Educate yourself on global situations of crisis & hope (e.g. care for the environment);
Perform one corporal work of mercy (Mt 25) per week (e.g. feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc.);
Choose a new cause or charity to donate to, learn from, and pray for regularly;
Commit to a regular volunteer opportunity each week (e.g. through Catholic Charities, a local service/justice organization, etc.);
Eat one simple meal a week in solidarity with those who eat simply every day (e.g. beans & rice; meatless meal);
Before meals, pray for those who go without adequate nourishment and all who labored to make your meal possible; and
“Purge” your belongings and give them to an organization that serves those in need.
Caring for creation
Pope Francis does not mince words when he talks about the effects of humanity’s actions on the created world:
The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth . . . These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled. It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary; but our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. (LS §§21, 22)
Advent is a time to remember God’s own breaking into the created world through the person of Jesus. This world which God walked is the very same one we take for granted, plunder, and scavenge bare, turning it into “an immense pile of filth.” As God promises to level mountains and fill valleys (see Is 40:4; Lk 3:5; last Sunday’s readings), we continue to use creation for our own end. We turn valleys into landfills—homes for our refuse and rubbish—and level mountains through mountain-top removal, skimming and mining them to fuel the convenient “throwaway culture” we have created. Though he paints what may seem like a bleak picture of the future of creation, Pope Francis offers great hope in his encyclical. The Pope suggests concrete habits (LS §211) for us to begin to cultivate a new respect for our creation, currently groaning in travail. Here are some of his suggestions and a few others to consider adopting in the weeks to come:
Pray specifically for the earth and all of creation, especially those who are exploited;
Separate refuse you create (recycle, compost, and trash/landfill) and decrease trash production;
Save energy: turn off lights when you are not in the room;
Use less heat (even if you can afford more) and wear warmer clothes ;
Reduce water consumption (e.g. when showering, brushing teeth, washing dishes, etc.);
Go car-less! Bike, walk, or take public transportation whenever possible; carpool to work or outings with friends;
Compost kitchen produce scraps to fertilize the soil; plant something (even if indoors);
Cook/order only what can be reasonably consumed and learn where your food comes from (eat local!);
Educate yourself in environmental issues and responsibility;
Avoid the use of plastic, paper, and other disposable goods (plan ahead by bringing reusable options, e.g. coffee mug, silverware, reusable towels, etc.); and
Stay current on what Pope Francis is doing, saying, and writing.
As we seek to prepare a home for Christ in our hearts this Advent, we are also called to heal the physical home which God entrusts to us, and which Christ entered through his Incarnation. By reflecting on our relationship with God, others, and creation in light of Laudato Si’, we continue to learn what a life of perfect praise in union with all creatures will look like. And we pray for this ultimate union with the words Pope Francis intended for us to share “with all who believe in a God who is the all-powerful Creator” (“A Prayer for Our Earth,” LS §246):
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Wednesday, December 2. We are grateful for the author’s permission to publish it here.
Brothers and sisters,
Stop passing judgment before the time of the Lord’s return.
He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness
and manifest the intentions of hearts.
At that time, everyone will receive his praise from God.
(1 Corinthians 4:5)
My father, whose death anniversary is tomorrow, gathered often with friends and colleagues to discuss University politics and national and international goings-on. I was privy to many such sessions and noticed that while the topics often changed, the script often didn’t. Routinely the conversation would identify a potential antagonist about whom one of my dad’s friends would say, “He’s a complete jerk” (or perhaps he’d employ a more colorful term), to which my dad would typically respond, “Not complete.”
It wasn’t as if my dad didn’t agree with the judgment being passed, but his habitual response for which he became known among his friends recognized the difference between his own limited judgment and God’s ultimate judgment.
Elsewhere in Paul’s letters we hear of the importance of making prudent judgments, especially of those within our own Christian community, and of ourselves and our own behavior. But in this passage, Paul reminds us that there is much we cannot see and know, not only about others but also about ourselves and the intentions of our own hearts. Paul says of himself, “I will not even be the judge of my own self. It’s true that my conscience does not reproach me but that is not enough to justify me: it is the Lord who is my judge” (1 Cor 4:3–4).
The final judgment, then, does not belong to us. Instead, as Paul says in the lines preceding the passage we read this evening, “We belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.” Not only are our premature and final judgments not ours to make but our need to calculate our worthiness against the worthiness of others is dissolved by our belonging to Christ, through whom we have already inherited everything. Our task then, it seems, is much more than just avoiding passing judgment before the Lord’s return; it is to practice belonging to Christ.
There is much said in Advent of waiting in hopeful anticipation for the first coming of Jesus and of the second coming of Christ. We carefully ready our homes, our altars, our hearts to take in God who in his mercy has come to be with us.
Preparation is not foreign to us. As students and professionals we prepare for class, conferences, and important meetings weekly. But it strikes me that in Advent we should not so much be preparing for things to go smoothly or as planned, as we have grown accustomed to doing. In welcoming the gift of the Incarnation and the second coming of Christ, we are preparing ourselves to be overcome, overtaken, utterly overwhelmed by God. We are preparing to be completely undone in a way and to be given ourselves in a truer form than we have previously known.
If St. Joseph County was anticipating being overwhelmed by a wind storm, we would no doubt be alerted by text, phone, and email by ND Alert, and would prepare for its coming as I prepare for my young nieces to visit: by putting everything away, securing our belongings, battening down the hatches so that as much would remain in place and intact as possible. In contrast, preparing for the coming of Christ looks more like taking everything out of storage and laying it out to be exposed, dismantled, and reordered; preparing ourselves to be taken in, taken up, moved, perhaps even to fly.
I recently saw a story about a man who parasail skis, meaning he alternately parasails and skis depending on the terrain as he flies down the mountain. Then he releases his parasail to ski off a cliff, and then releases his skis as he free-falls in a winged suit for several minutes before hopefully pulling a parachute to land. The interviewer asked him, “How do you physically prepare for something like this?” He said, “Your whole life really, not just your physical training, has to be about replacing the instinct to cling to your chute and skis with the instinct to release them.”
As we prepare our homes and hearts to receive Christ and our family and friends this Advent, let our waiting and preparation be marked by release . . . release of passing premature judgment on ourselves and others, release of the need to keep everything intact, release of the desire to stay the same, and if not these, than release of whatever it is that we give ourselves to, to avoid giving ourselves to God, who once again gives himself to us and waits to see how he will be received.
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life