Though Epiphany was on Sunday most of the United States, and isn’t until Wednesday for others, the readings this week are all about the holy day. It’s a celebration of the revelation of Christ’s divinity. Epiphany originally celebrated three different events in Christ’s life, all of which, in their own way, reveal his divine identity: the arrival of the Magi, his baptism in the Jordan, and the wedding at Cana. Today’s reading, from St Peter Chrysologus:
Today the Magi gaze in deep wonder at what they see: heaven on earth, earth in heaven, man in God, God in man, one whom the whole universe cannot contain now enclosed in a tiny body. As they look they believe and do not question, as their symbolic gifts bear witness: incense for God, gold for a king, myrrh for the one who is to die.
Today Christ enters the Jordan to wash away the sin of the world. John himself testifies that this is why he has come: Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Today a servant lays his hand on the Lord, a man lays his hand on God, John lays his hand on Christ, not to forgive but to receive forgiveness.
Today Christ works the first of his signs from heaven by turning water into wine. But water [mixed with wine] still has to be changed into the sacrament of his blood, so that Christ may offer spiritual drink from the chalice of his body.
I enjoyed scrolling through all these images of Catholic churches done in a “brutalist” style, collected and explained by Catholic architect Jason John Paul Haskins. Brutalism is not necessarily the most popular sort of church architecture, but it is interesting, and it has something unique to say. Haskins explains:
The thing is, I genuinely find many of these church buildings to be sacred, inspiring, beautiful, moving, rich, worthy… And not in simply an academic or historical study; in my time in my own experience, outside considerations of their original context or the intent of their commissioners, architects, and builders. And this is especially true when I participate in their completion in worship.
Francis has in a way upended things; more than his predecessors, he has chosen to lower the shield that ritual provides, revealing himself and the person he really is. This has injected unpredictability into the operations of the Vatican—which prizes predictability—making some of its courtiers nervous, but allowing others to thrive. In The Crown, we see this unpredictability in Diana, who as “the people’s princess” creates a kind of upheaval similar to what Francis has done in denouncing the clericalism of his brother bishops and casting himself more as part of the people of God than of the Curia.
I’m not sure what to make of this article from The Seattle Times, about ongoing demands for more transparency and accountability regarding the clergy’s complicity in the sex abuse crisis here in Western Washington.
Members of Heal Our Church, a Seattle-based alliance of practicing Catholics who seek a public review of how the Roman Catholic Church’s worldwide sexual abuse scandal secretly festered within the parishes of Western Washington, contend they’re being stonewalled by Archbishop Paul Etienne.
Heal Our Church has been seeking a meeting with the archbishop since January of last year, but of course, the coronavirus seems like an obvious mitigating circumstance. And a major, lay-led review of all this, as the article acknowledges, has already been done. But frankly, little of the hierarchy’s behavior in this matter makes me want to extend much benefit of the doubt.
On the other hand, I was surprised to see the McCarrick Report mentioned at the end of the article as an example of the clergy “circling the wagons”, rather than as an unprecedented act of transparency. It seems to me that something like the McCarrick report is exactly what Heal Our Church is asking for?
Regardless, the hierarchy certainly deserves all the suspicion and scorn it receives from the media, the public, and the faithful in this matter. That and then some.
My present to myself this Christmas was this icon, from artist Eva Campbell. The icon, Our Lady of the Sign, is an ancient one, but this is a modern take on it. I love the bright colors, and the golden hues of Mary’s and Jesus’ skin.
Jesus is at the center of the image, yet Mary is behind and all around him, the Mother of God, revealing to us her divine Son.
I started this blog on my saint’s day, September 29th, and by some miracle I’ve managed to post something every day since. Now as we head into 2021, I’m approaching 100 posts, at which point I think I will take some time to reflect on how to proceed.
In the meantime, I’ve looked over the blog’s stats and thought I would feature the top six posts of the year, in case anyone missed them.
Why six? Well, there’s a couple ties in there and I didn’t want to choose between them!
This was a personal experience drawing on 10 years or so of ministry in Protestant contexts, but especially with a charismatic missionary group I was a part of for a short time. I tried to show how Luther’s “faith alone” doctrine continues to echo down through the centuries, and how it just misses the mark.
I can’t even share a breath with the charismatic stuff anymore: no glory clouds, no prophetic images, no deliverance prayers for me, thanks. It’s not that those things were bad or even not real. I think I saw miracles, exorcisms, and healings there, I really do. But there were problems that, I would bet, plague many charismatic communities: an attempt to manipulate the Holy Spirit through correct formulas and displays of emotion; a fixation on the miraculous as proof positive of one’s spiritual maturity; and most all, a confusion of what is peripheral with what is central.
I was surprised this one was so popular, since it came on the heels of a nine-day series on Guadalupe (I much preferred this post about her, personally), but I suspect it’s because the title was decent clickbait. It’s a brief post looking at the Aztec-Catholic iconography of the Guadalupe image and explaining how it points to the identity of the child in her womb. For example:
Printed on the tunic, directly over Mary’s womb, is a unique four-petaled flower. Though small and inconspicuous, this flower is an Aztec symbol for Téotl, a central concept in their philosophy. Téotl could be roughly translated as “God”, but a more careful reading might lead us to a parallel Greek concept: logos, or Word. Mary’s son is Téotl, the Word, made flesh. For him, by him, and through him all things were made.
This post was part of a longer series on the problem of Christian authority. I enjoyed writing this one in particular because I used a famous (American) football play to illustrate the need for a living and authoritative Christian interpreter, someone who makes calls on the field of play.
Imagine trying to have professional football without referees. It would never work! While you can certainly play backyard football without refs, anytime you want to play a high-stakes game on a large scale, you need that living authority to be an official arbiter. And you have to continue to accept that authority even if you disagree with a particular judgment. Without that, you don’t have a league at all.
This is a short reflection about an early experience I had praying the Rosary, which was another gateway for me deeper into Catholic devotion. It’s about the power of contemplation as the highest form of Christian prayer:
The experience was visceral. My gut clenched, my body spasmed; I felt a wave of nausea. There’s no easy triumph nor comforting platitudes to be found in watching someone be tortured and executed. But the Hail Marys kept me in rhythm, kept pulling me through to the end, one step after another. And as I continued, I felt an odd catharsis. Just as the high priest laid the sins of the people on the scapegoat, which was then driven out of the city gates, so this Man of Sorrows was taking on, somehow, my sins. Something was, almost magically, being transferred from my flesh to His.
I enjoyed writing this post, about Catholicism’s love of feasting and partying, and how discovering the fullness of the Catholic calendar enriched my own spiritual life and gave me more to look forward to throughout the year.
Might I suggest that Catholicism, perhaps more than any other expression of Christianity, is committed to celebrating the story of Jesus in all its fullness? It begins with Christmas and Easter, certainly, but it also includes His Mother, His disciples, and every little saint that He has brought through Heaven’s doors. And so, in the Catholic Church, there’s just more reasons to celebrate!
This was my inaugural post, and also the way I announced my impending entry into the Catholic Church to my friends and family. I worked hardest on this post, so if you haven’t read it already, I hope you will. It’s an important part of my story, but in many ways, only a beginning to what I am sure will be a long journey.
The Good Friday liturgy is the same in every parish, brutal, gutting: the crucifixion story from the Gospel of John is sung in choir, the priest offers a brief homily, the cross is unveiled before the altar. Then we line up in the aisle to kneel and adore it, one by one. This particular year, however, nestled between the reading and the kneeling, it was the homily that arrested me.
I know a few of you who are following along, and I want to say thanks to you and many others who have taken the time to read my writing over the past couple of months. It’s been important and clarifying for me to write things out, and healthy for me to share my thoughts and experiences with my friends, family, and internet strangers.
I love this description of the Christian life, from St Hippolytus:
The saying “know yourself” means therefore that we should recognize and acknowledge in ourselves the God who made us in his own image, for if we do this, we in turn will be recognized and acknowledged by our Maker. So let us not be at enmity with ourselves, but change our way of life without delay. For Christ who is God, exalted above all creation, has taken away man’s sin and has refashioned our fallen nature.
In the beginning God made man in his image and so gave proof of his love for us. If we obey his holy commands and learn to imitate his goodness, we shall be like him and he will honor us. God is not beggarly, and for the sake of his own glory he has given us a share in his divinity.
“His holy commands” do not distort or enslave our nature, rather they re-form us into who we really are: bearers of the divine image.
It’s the feast day of St Thomas Becket, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his martyrdom in 1170.
For some reason (probably because I watched all four seasons of The Crown in 2020), his story has lit up my imagination this year. Becket was martyred by four of King Henry II’s “yes-men”, who interpreted the king’s complaints about Becket as an order to kill him. Shockingly, the assassins carried out the murder in the quire of Canterbury Cathedral, where they accosted Becket and hacked at his head with a sword until his brains were scattered across the stone floor.
What was it that made Becket such a meddlesome priest? In a foreshadowing of the disputes of the Reformation 400 years later, Becket consistently sided with the Pope against the King whenever the two came into conflict. King Henry II wanted to expand the powers of the Crown into the the affairs of the Church, but Becket resisted. Here’s Becket in a letter:
There are a great many bishops in the Church [ . . . ] Yet the Roman Church remains the head of all the churches and the source of Catholic teaching. Of this there can be no doubt. Everyone knows that the keys of the kingdom of heaven were given to Peter. Upon his faith and teaching the whole fabric of the Church will continue to be built until we all reach full maturity in Christ.
Becket was canonized a mere two years after his martyrdom, and his assassins later did their penance in the Holy Land by order of Pope Alexander III.
The Church in England remained a part of the Catholic Church for 400 more years, but the legacy of St. Thomas Becket was a major thorn in the side of another King Henry, King Henry VIII. During the English Reformation, the King had Becket’s shrine and relics destroyed, and mention of his name was forbidden.
This King Henry, of course, did eventually succeed in bringing the Church in England completely under the control of the Crown.
At a certain point in my journey toward Catholicism, I realized I was no longer requiring some kind of proof that it was all true. I knew I didn’t have to believe, but the issue was that I wanted to believe, so I wasn’t looking for something completely airtight. I just was checking everything to make sure that it was intellectually defensible before I gave my assent. I just needed to know that it was possible to believe these things and still be a reasonable person.
I wasn’t asking, “Do I have to believe this?”
I was asking, “Can I believe this?”
Once I had made that move, I started gaining a lot of speed.
A skeptic or a non-believer is going to ask why Catholicism (or any other belief system, really) is demonstrably true and so the whole journey is quite uphill. People do come to faith in this way, but painfully, slowly, and often unwillingly. You can’t prove the Resurrection of Jesus or any other matter of faith because such matters are not repeatable phenomenon that can be tested in a lab. Sometimes, people are given convincing proofs such as miracles and visions and so on, but that experience is quite rare When someone is asking the question, “Do I have to believe this?”, it has to be proven true beyond a reasonable doubt before they will assent to it. So people who ask, well, why should I believe that, are going to be much more resistant by nature.
By contrast, people who hope something is true, who find it desirable and attractive and pleasant, are more likely to be looking for all the reasons that they can believe something. They’re only going to be talked out of it if it can be shown, demonstrably, to be false. When I start asking the question, “Can I believe this?”, usually it needs to be proven false before I will let it go. When I’m asking, well, why shouldn’t I believe this, I’m already giving something the benefit of the doubt, and I’m going to be much more credulous by nature.
The thing is, I’m not sure what flips the switch, so to speak, from “must I believe” to “can I believe”, other than desire. People rarely believe what they don’t want to be true. Something has to change in what a person desires before much headway can be made in what they believe.
Back in my SPU days I had this great professor, Dr. Spina. Dr. Spina was a liturgy enthusiast (read: snob), as is proper for any Episcopalian, and he used to put us low-church evangelicals to shame with questions such as, “How do you know your church service has begun?”
We’d all just sort of blink at him like morons.
Another one of his questions that seemed designed to stupefy us was simply, “When does the Christmas season begin?”
We were all too intimidated to risk giving the wrong answer to what seemed like an easy question. Dr. Spina would take a dramatic pause, daring us to embarrass ourselves.
“Christmas!” he would say, as if it should be obvious. “Christmas begins . . . on Christmas.”
Then he’d start in on his lecture on the water-carriers in the book of Judges, or some such topic.
So, here’s my new dummy question, which I still can’t get a straight answer on.
When does the Christmas season end?
Commercially, obviously, Christmas is over at the end of the day on December 25th, when all the presents have been opened and the wrapping paper is piled like snowdrifts onto the living room floor.
Liturgically speaking, things are a bit harder to pin down.
Traditionally, as the song goes, Christmas has twelve days, starting on Christmas day and extending until Epiphany on January 6th. That’s a nice neat number. The twelve days of Christmas. Some denominations, like Episcopalians and Lutherans, have mostly preserved this number. I quite like the simplicity of that, and for the last few years I’ve been taking my decorations down on Epiphany.
But as it turns out, for Catholics, Epiphany no longer marks the end of the Christmas season.
I recently discovered that the Catholic Church has made several changes to this tradition over the last 100 years, and has made things a little trickier for us. The first was creating the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus’ baptism was originally part of the Epiphany celebration. But Epiphany also celebrates the arrival of the Magi and this aspect of the feast had eclipsed Jesus’ baptism in the popular imagination. In order to ensure that the baptism was also commemorated, the Church instituted a new feast day on the Sunday after Epiphany. So now it’s the Baptism of the Lord that marks the end of the Christmas season, which would be sometime between January 7th and 12th.
To make things more complicated, certain dioceses allow Epiphany itself to be moved to the Sunday between January 2nd and 8th, which means (I’ll spare you the liturgical trigonometry) that the Baptism of the Lord could be celebrated as late as January 13th.
So this year, Christmas ends on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which this year is on January 10th.
Is that when I should take down my decorations?
Here’s another wrinkle: since the Christmas season commemorates the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, there’s a good case to made that the Christmas season isn’t really over until February 2nd, traditionally called Candlemas, when Catholics celebrate Mary’s ritual purification, the prophecies of Simeon and Anna, and the first entrance of Jesus into the temple as a baby.
In fact, as tradition has it, if you don’t manage to get your Christmas decorations down on Epiphany Eve (the twelfth night of Christmas), you’re supposed to wait until Candlemas to do so, or it’s bad luck!
So if I miss my chance on Epiphany or Baptism of the Lord, I get another few weeks of Christmas decor before Candlemas arrives on February 2nd.
In another sense, I suppose, we are always working inside the Advent-Christmas cycle and commemorating the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Even outside of Advent through Baptism, there’s the Annunciation on March 25th, where we celebrate Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit (nine months before Christmas day), the Feast of the Visitation on May 31st, celebrating Mary visiting Elizabeth while they were both pregnant, and the Birth of St John the Baptist on June 24th, chosen due to the timing of Elizabeth’s pregnancy six months before Mary’s. All three of these dates are related to December 25th in the liturgical calendar.
So, should I . . . never take down my decorations? Maybe I can leave up all the outside lights all year round without embarrassment, since in a certain sense we are celebrating Jesus’ birth all year long.
I’m joking, of course. Having a Christmas tree up in July would be some kind of liturgical malpractice.
What about you: do you have a traditional “end” to the Christmas season in your home?
Happy day-after to everyone! Today is the Feast of St Stephen, the first martyr. It’s a day in which, traditionally, I sit at home and play video games for as long as my wife will allow.
Here are some links for your weekend reading.
Caitlin Flanagan has a very sweet exploration in The Atlantic about the Charlie Brown Christmas special. I didn’t know this, but Charles Schulz had a strong hand in shaping production, and Linus’ famous telling of the gospel story was a non-negotiable for him. Schulz seems to have really understood the world of children and for that reason (not to mention the Vince Guaraldi Trio) the special remains a classic. Flanagan:
Charles Schulz had what Maurice Sendak had: respect for children. He understood the way they think and feel, not the way adults want them to think and feel. He understood that there’s a point in children’s growing up when Christmas doesn’t work its magic as reliably as it once did. Schulz let them explore a taboo subject, Christmastime unhappiness, while still reassuring them that Christmas is a good and fun and wonderful thing.
Father Aidan Kimel, a Western Orthodox priest, has posted three Christmas poems over the last week by none other than Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams, leading lights of the Inklings and (two of them at least) still household names today.
It is true: in our endless desire for possessions, we run after any number of mangers filled with ephemeral things and forget the manger of Bethlehem. That manger, poor in everything yet rich in love, teaches that true nourishment in life comes from letting ourselves be loved by God and loving others in turn. Jesus gives us the example. He, the Word of God, becomes an infant; he does not say a word but offers life.