A Wholesome Homily at Christmastide

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1661-69 (Source)

I would like to refer my readers to a phenomenal sermon delivered by Mother Brit Frazier of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, PA. Some of you may know Mother Brit from Twitter, others from Earth & Altar, a very good Anglican blog. You can find the video here, starting at 24:00 and continuing for about eleven minutes. I found her meditation on the theme of God as a home for all, as a welcome for the spiritually homeless, to be quite moving.

For those who are curious, the poem from Chesterton that she discusses, “The House of Christmas,” runs as follows:

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honor and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam,
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

Although I am not much of a Chesterton fan anymore, I, too, was taken with this poem. I am grateful for having been introduced to it, though the strongest parts of the sermon move well beyond Chesterton. “The heart of Jesus is a secure place. There’s no need to defend it, no need to fear for our safety.” These words of Mother Brit’s bear further meditation. How often do we act as though the heart of Jesus were not secure, or as if His grace could move without His sovereign will – even when it appears to fail?

I chose Rembrandt’s famous Return of the Prodigal Son to illustrate this post because it perfectly captures the feelings of welcome, abundance, and divine homecoming that Mother Brit evokes. For our own return home to God always takes the form of repentance and devotion, even if just for a Providential instant before death.

However, I also thought of the work of another artist. Allan Rohan Crite (1910-2007) was a Black painter and illustrator whose work focused primarily on scenes of African American urban life. He was also an Anglo-Catholic. His religious corpus, which bears a favorable comparison to that of other Anglican artists such as Martin Travers, Enid Chadwick, Ninian Comper, and William Butterfield, combines transcendent solemnity with a keen attention to the realities of everyday life.

His 1948 painting of Our Lady of the Neighborhood is a good representation of what Mother Brit is talking about.

Our Lady of the Neighborhood, Allan Rohan Crite, 1948 (Source)

A Black Madonna carries Jesus through a crowd of dark-skinned children in an urban scene. Although she is crowned with twelve stars, she is entirely at home with these people; they in turn are entirely at home with her and her divine son. The children in this image exhibit an easy intimacy with the Mother and Child, the sort of intimacy that comes from long familiarity. This sense of “being at home with each other,” so like the prelapsarian life, is the very sentiment that the Christian aspires to enjoy with God.

Yet how hard it is to attain! And not just because our sins and temptations, which are distraction enough. Our whole religious apparatus is set up to warn us of these traps on the journey. But even our piety and our virtues can get in the way, ossifying into idols that demand more and more of our tribute, sapping more and more of our time and energy. Good things, when used in a disordered way, become snares. The incense we burn before those false gods clouds our love of God. Perhaps that is why a somewhat fanciful image like this one becomes so attractive. It shows us another way – life as an easy, peaceful, almost effortless communion with God. It shows us a tiny, imaginative glimpse of the communion of saints. This communion, surely, is what Mother Brit has in mind when she says that “Our true home is an eternal and abiding safety.” For these children manifestly feel safe next to the God-Man and His all-pure Mother. They are, for lack of a better term, friends.

Mother Brit also touches upon this grand theme of friendship with Christ. She says:

Our home in Christ is always a place of companionship and love. He is our Savior and Redeemer, yes, but He is, indeed, our Friend. This friendship of Jesus is no ordinary fellowship. He lives alongside of us: a confidant, a guide. His hand is in our hands, His heart is opened and always opening to us, soothing our uncertainties and making our pathways into places of peace. His company is always unconditional companionship and love. In our fellowship with Him, we are given a beloved family.

Mother Brit Frazier, Sermon for the First Sunday in Christmastide, 2021

Friendship with Christ – a mystery. But our mystery, our blessed mystery, the magnificent mystery at the heart of Christian life. How strange it is that Being Itself, the Uncreated Light, the Omnipotent and Omniscient One, should call humans, who are essentially nothing, His friends? Yes, it is a tremendous mystery.

Crite conjures something of this mystery in his illustrations for Three Spirituals from Earth to Heaven (1948), which give a distinctly Anglo-Catholic spin to the texts of old Negro spirituals. For instance, in his drawings for “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” Crite depicts a Black man being taken up by Jesus into the heavenly choirs.

Illustration for “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” in Allan Rohan Crite, Three Spirituals from Earth to Heaven, 1948 (Source)

Perhaps it would be more apt to say that Jesus is carrying him. He’s not walking at all, but peacefully letting the Savior draw him into the realms of glory. A procession of coped figures streams by in the background, unnoticed by the poor and troubled man; yet this is no earthly liturgy, as the following illustrations make clear.

Illustration for “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” in Allan Rohan Crite, Three Spirituals from Earth to Heaven, 1948 (Source)

Christ Himself dons a cope of glory as well as a shining crown; He gently takes the troubled soul by the hand and shows him the scene he has hitherto missed. We sense his stunned joy. We can almost hear the otherworldly harmony of the singers. And look at the expression on Jesus’s face – not a stern look, but rather the concerned and kindly gaze of a friend who is attentive to the reaction of a dear companion whom He has just surprised.

And what is the greatest surprise of all? That even a poor and outcast and troubled soul has a place in this glorious choir. Crite finishes by depicting the poor man’s reception into glory, with Christ vesting him in a beautiful robe. God does not look at us like the World does, for He sees the heart. As Mother Brit says in her homily, “even those whom the World have rejected are given places of beauty and intimacy and peace and security at the throne of grace.” Allan Rohan Crite knew that Truth, and it shone through so much of his art.

Christmas is about all these things – Christ as our true home, Christ as our true friend. Especially in this holy time of year, let us pray for the grace always to trust that His friendship will lead us home to His heart.

Merry Christmas from the Amish Catholic

This year, I find myself unable to write much new for this feast. So instead, I will refer my readers to what I have written in past years.

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Guido Reni, c. 1640 (Source)

2017 – The God Who Loves to Be Unknown

2017 – The Five Idols of Christmas

2018 – Christmas Tree, Icon of Wisdom

2019 – Grace, Gratitude, and the Incarnation

2020 – The Feast of the Deus Absconditus

2021 – Christmas With Quesnel

Tonight at Mass, I was struck by how Our Lord, coming in poverty, obscurity, and humility, first drew to Himself people of poverty, obscurity, and humility. The shepherds stand for the poor and the oppressed; they stand for all those hidden souls where God works great miracles of sanctity in silence; and they stand for the humble, for supernatural humility is the distinguishing mark of the Christian life. They are thus our elder brothers among the elect, chosen by God to receive the mighty grace of His presence. As the Psalmist sings, “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him; and he will shew them his covenant” (Psalm 25:15 KJV).

We must grow more and more like the shepherds, always seeking the Face of Christ once announced to us in by Revelation. That, too, is a grace – the joy of seeking and finding God.

And consider the company these lowly shepherds keep – an angel speaks to them, Our Lady beholds their wonder, and the God of Abraham admits them to His personal presence, honoring them more highly than the Prophets and the High Priests. Their names are lost to us. We will never know their image and likeness. They came to Him in a dark night, unnoticed by the world. But now they dwell with the saints in unapproachable light, adoring their Lord in a bright and everlasting day.

Let us pray to share in the joyful graces of the shepherds this Christmas.

A Christmas illustration by J.C. Leyendecker, 1905 (Source)

Christmas With Quesnel

This year, for Christmas, I wanted to present a brief, original translation of Pasquier Quesnel’s edifying Réflexions Morales. The following passages, which concern the second chapter of St. Luke, are taken from the 1693 edition, Volume III, pages 30-37. All Biblical citations are from the Douay-Rheims.

Dutch portrait of M. Quesnel, Priest of the French Oratory (Source)

The Birth of the Incarnate Son of God – Luke 2:1-7

  1. And it came to pass, that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled.
  2. This enrolling was first made by Cyrinus, the governor of Syria.

The greatest princes often give themselves to great movements and take up magnificent designs without knowing the reason why. Augustus imagined working for the glory of his name and the splendor of his reign – and his orders, by orders more powerful and more absolute than his own, served to accomplish the prophecies that were unknown to him, at the birth of a king he would never know, and the establishment of a monarch that would subjugate his own and all others. This is what happens in every age, and we think not of it.

3. And all went to be enrolled, every one into his own city.
4. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: because he was of the house and family of David,
5. To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child.

Nativity, Philippe de Champaigne (Source)

There is nothing here that seems to happen by chance; and yet, all is ordained by Providence to assure and fix by a public testimony the knowledge of the time and the place of the birth of the Messiah and the origin of the house of David.

The Son of God, recorded from his birth as a real man, acknowledges, so to speak, his obedience, his humility, and the accomplishment of his promises. It is well visible from this that his grandeur, predicted by the angel, is not a human grandeur.

The poverty, fatigue, and subjugation in which Joseph and Mary find themselves are the preparation for the gift that they are going to receive from God.

Let us learn to submit ourselves to every creature for God, and principally to the royal power, in seeing Jesus Christ begin to obey from his birth and before his birth.

6. And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered.

Jesus Christ subjected himself to the laws of nature and to a prison of nine months. He hides the glory of His birth, in being born in an unknown place; teaches us to detach ourselves from our country and from all the present world, in being born in a voyage; recommends to us poverty, mortification, and humility, in being born in a borrowed place, deprived of all conveniences and help.

What instructions for us from this first moment, if we know how to hear them well! Let us listen to them in a spirit of adoration and annihilation.

7. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the Virgin; we are, in a certain sense, the next-born.

His humiliation in the infirmity of childhood is all the more worthy to be adored, as it seems the more unworthy of His grandeur and His wisdom. Rejected by men, he borrows the dwelling of beasts. May human pride blush as long as it is pleased to have a God become a child of a day and a moment, reduced to the captivity of swaddling-clothes, to the lowliness of a manger, and to the dwelling of beasts, to race again to the help of His creatures – and to be rejected! It is the glory of the Christian that his God has desired to do and to suffer all that for his salvation. It is his honor to adore Him, to recognize Him as his king, and to render him homage in all His states.

The Shepherds – Luke 2:8-20

8. And there were in the same country shepherds watching, and keeping the night watches over their flock.

9. And behold an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the brightness of God shone round about them; and they feared with a great fear.

Jesus Christ manifests Himself to the simple and the poor rather than to the learned and the rich. He reserves to the vigilant shepherds the knowledge of the mysteries and duties of religion; the negligent ones are left in their shadows.

Thou dost begin from this moment, Lord, to show who are those whom Thou hast chosen for Thy Kingdom, and who are the ones whom Thou hast cast off.

The Light of the World, François Boucher, 1750 (Source)

10. And the angel said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people

The birth of Jesus is the joy of this world, and the world did not know it. The world has its vain joys, its criminal joys, and by these it is unworthy to share in the joy of the birth of the Savior. It is the image of what happens every day; men have a heart closed to the things of God, in proportion to the extent to which they have one open to the pleasures and greed of this world.

11. For, this day, is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David.

Abridgement of all the grandeurs of Jesus exposed to the faith of the shepherds, and which God formed in their hearts by the exterior sign of the light which surrounded them. As son of David and heir of the promises, he had a royal birth; as Savior, a sovereign goodness; as Christ, the fullness of the Spirit of God and of the sacerdotal and prophetic unction; as the Lord, a divine power.

What must we not hope of a Savior in whom one finds a sovereign power joined to an infinite goodness, which he annihilates for us?

12. And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.

Is it there, Lord, the mark of Thy grandeurs, the ornaments of Thy royalty, the throne of Thy glory? O crèche, worthier than all that the world has of great riches and precious things, may I learn at your feet that it is by humility that Jesus comes to reign and that there is only “this path which leads to his kingdom!”

Pride is the character of the sons of Adam; humility, the mark of the Son of God and of the elect.

13. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God, and saying:

God, bringing honor by the celestial spirits to his Son, annihilated in infancy, teaches those of the earth, for whom He comes, what homage they owe Him in this state.

The angels remain happy to raise up by their praises the glory of a newborn infant, and to adore Him as their God. Will men be disdainful?

The crèche of the Savior is a scandal to the Jews and folly to the Greeks as much as the Cross; His infancy as well as His death is the pitfall of human pride. But it is the power of God for the salvation of those who have faith, and even the object of adoration for the angels.

Adoration of the Shepherds, Eustache La Sueur (Source)

14. Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.

The two principal motives of the Incarnation are the glory of God and the reconciliation of mankind.

God promises peace on earth to those whom He loves, but not repose.

The peace of God consists in His love, through whatever trouble and whatever storms this love may expose the Christian.

The peace that reigns on earth in these times only marks the birth of God in peace.

15. And it came to pass, after the angels departed from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another: Let us go over to Bethlehem, and let us see this word that is come to pass, which the Lord hath shewed to us.

When God inspires someone to search out Jesus Christ, to render Him some duty, to apply one’s self to one of his mysteries, we must not neglect it.

The angel does not order the shepherds to go to Bethlehem; but rather makes known and proposes the good to faithful souls so as to make them undertake it. It is thus to a good Christian and to a pious lady to say to them: Jesus Christ is in this poor tabernacle as in a manger, wrapped up in the appearances of bread, abandoned by all the world – He is in this poor one, almost naked, lodged in a miserable hut, lacking everything.

This is the image of the holy assemblies of zealous persons, who, profiting from exhortations and the light of their visible angels, mutually encourage each other to visit the Blessed Sacrament, poor households, and foundlings, in honor of Jesus the poor infant, swaddled and sleeping in a manger. Let us go to Bethlehem, the “house of the bread” of Heaven. May it please God that those who are outside this house, that is, outside the Church, might encourage each other to go look for Jesus Christ to taste there what our Savior causes us to know!

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Jean Baptiste Marie Pierre, 1745 (Source)

16. And they came with haste; and they found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.

Will not sinners blush from the luxury and the delicacy of their beds, seeing the Son of God in a manger?

When a good work presents itself, far from losing time, we must follow the movement of grace without delay, for fear lest it pass, and for fear that another will take from us either the occasion or the beginnings of a holy work.

This reversal of order, the bride named before the bridegroom, creatures before the Creator, marks well the reversal made by the Incarnation. Mary is truly the Mother of God, and this dignity grants her the first rank in His house.

17. And seeing, they understood of the word that had been spoken to them concerning this child.

These shepherds believe the word of the angel without reasoning about it; they see the lowness and poverty of the manger, without being scandalized, and reflect on all, without being troubled. This is the advantage of a humble, simple, and submissive faith.

What false reasonings do the Philosophers make! How many apparent contradictions are embraced by the beaux esprits of the world!

18. And all that heard, wondered; and at those things that were told them by the shepherds.

The shepherds, first apostles of the infant Jesus, are faithful in announcing the news of His birth. God blesses the simplicity of their report in causing it to be believed everywhere.
God does not love and does not bless that human prudence which believes it must hide the apparent lowliness of the mysteries of religion. It belongs to man to obey and to suppress nothing, and to God to cause belief by inspiring faith.

19. But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart.

Mary, consecrated and elevated to Jesus Christ, full of his mysteries, and entirely applied to the collection of virtue, spirit, and grace, condemns the forgetfulness and negligence in which Christians live with regards to what the Savior has done for them.

It is not easy to profit from the mysteries and the truths of the Gospel, and to preserve them in one’s memory; one must sustain them in the presence of Our Lord, and meditate upon them often, according to the example of the Blessed Virgin.

She is the teacher and the first model of Christian meditation upon the life of Jesus Christ. Let us profit in the school of our holy Mistress.

20. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God, for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

The shepherds imitate her in adoring and glorifying God. This is the first effect of faith, the first duty of religion, a tribute of recognition that we owe to the gifts of God.

The praise of these good people is as simple as their faith, and that is what God loves.

Thus should true Christians return to their own homes from the Church where they came to adore Jesus Christ and to listen to the preaching of His mysteries, His virtues, and His maxims.

The Feast of the Deus Absconditus

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Philippe de Champaigne, c. 1645 (Source)

It is customary to regard Christmas as a feast of divine manifestation. God has become man. He has entered the human story in a definitive and absolutely singular way. Grace, like a geyser, erupts from the cave at Bethlehem to inundate the whole world.

Our festivities have made this season merry. Our sermons and celebrations, our songs and specials, our gifts and feasting – everything seems to collude in a joyous conspiracy to rob us of our gloom at what is, by nature, a terribly depressing time of year. And there is much to rejoice in when we regard the Holy Infant surrounded by his Virgin Mother and foster-father. But I think we have missed something.

God is everywhere hidden – a Deus Absconditus. His Face, as it were, abides behind more veils than that which cloaked His glory in the Temple. In the depths of human sin, the heart fashions idols and chases phantasms. This is not merely true of those outside the Church; how often do we Christians find ourselves falling into the same wicked habits, preferring the things of earth to the things of heaven! I am not excused from this very charge. I, too, am in need of mercy.

Christmas is not so much a feast of divine manifestation as a testament of God’s enduring hiddenness. The Infant King has no caparisoned herald to announce him in the highways and byways, so as to bring the mighty to pay their homage. Instead, He sends His angels to summon the lowly and humble from afar off in the fields. Why were the shepherds summoned first, and not the townspeople of Bethlehem? Only a few souls received this extraordinary grace. We do not know their names. We have no idea what happened to them in the end. We have no sense of whether the peculiar privilege granted to them bore fruit in their own salvation. But I would like to believe that they did achieve the Beatific Vision. I hope they are in a high choir of Heaven. As deep calls to deep, so does the Hidden God love those elect souls who remain hidden in pious obscurity. In a beautiful passage, Fr. Faber calls these souls, which exist even today,

a subterranean world, the diamond-mine of the Church, from whose caverns a stone of wondrous lustre is taken now and then, to feed our faith, to reveal to us the abundant though hidden operations of grace, and to comfort us, when the world’s wickedness and our own depress us, by showing that God has pastures of His own uunder our very feet, where His glory feeds without our seeing it.

Fr. Frederick William Faber, Bethlehem, 228.

How then is this a divine manifestation? If anything, God draws the shepherds into the very obscurity in which He always abides. It is a manifestation that negates itself. They share His hiddenness, so similar to the dim glory of the Holy of Holies. The shepherds become human extensions of His sacred obscurity. Each one is a living shroud of the Divine Presence. Their lives, already hidden from the proud eyes of the world, are now forever hidden in God’s and written into His story.

God led the shepherds to that bed by the grace of an angelic call. He led the Magi instead by a less glorious, if no less effective, grace. They saw a marvel in the sky and followed it. Strange phenomena are another of God’s many veils, though not so beautiful and not so clear as revelation. We do not even know if the star they followed was supernatural or just a prodigy of nature. Directly or indirectly, Providence used it as a beacon to light their way to the dark and holy cave.

Nativity, Philippe de Champaigne (Source)

But the shepherds were first. And surely in this we discover a truth confirmed throughout the long history of the Church’s experience in the world. God does not reveal Himself to the learned and those wise in the judgment of the World. The Incarnation, like all the works of grace, is “unto the Jews indeed a stumblingblock, and unto the Gentiles foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:23 DRA). Our Lady sings as well that “He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek” (Luke 1:51-52, BCP 1662).

Worldly learning is totally bereft of access to God. It is little better than blindness. Thinking otherwise is mere pride and vanity, and only deepens the darkness. St. Paul tells us that “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV). Natural reason can help us see that there is a God, as well as to illuminate a few of His basic features. But no sage, however wise, and no scholar, however learned, grasped the mystery of the Incarnation of the Logos. Still less could they have foreseen that this holy child was, as it were, born as a sacrifice. Even the Prophets were entrusted with signs alone, and not the true substance of the mystery they preached. That was reserved first for the Virgin Immaculate in holy poverty, then for St. Joseph her Most Chaste Spouse, then the family of the Holy Forerunner, and then to the humble shepherds. Only after all of them did the Magi arrive to gaze upon the faze of God Incarnate. In delaying the Magi, Providence teaches us that the mysteries of grace are a crucifixion of natural reason. But in condescending to let them enter and adore the Divine King, He shows us that He will crown our earnest efforts to reach Him, as only He can, with His mercy.

But still, so very few are the witnesses of this God who remains, as it were, quite hidden! A handful of Jewish shepherds, and three pagan scholars with their retinue. He is brought to the Temple and circumcised – a prophetess and a priest, both soon to depart for eternal life, are entrusted with the secret. Anna and Simeon are a reminder that “salvation is of the Jews,” (John 4:22 KJV) and comes from no other people on earth. The gratuitous particularity of this chosen people, this priestly nation among all others, comes from the newborn babe that Simeon held in his hands. Perhaps, looking upon that smiling face, he suddenly saw all the covenants telescope into one, all collapse into themselves and center upon and magnify this child. Perhaps he knew he was holding the heavenly High Priest, of which his own office was merely a shadow.

The Presentation in the Temple, Philippe de Champaigne (Source)

Quite soon, the Lord departs from Bethlehem when a wicked and impudent king seeks His life. Then those martyrs, the Holy Innocents, water the ground of Bethlehem with their sainted blood. That grisly dewfall covered the steps of the escaped God who, in His Mercy, made them a very different kind of witness to His Incarnation. But their names are also covered in obscurity. They, too, remain in a kind of holy hiddenness.

There is a common thread between these four groups – or at least, explicitly in the first three, and only implicitly in the last. Contact with the Divine Presence, hidden for so long, brings forth adoration in the soul. The shepherds adore, the Magi adore, the dwellers in the Temple adore, and the Holy Innocents join Him in an oblation of their very blood. This grace of adoration is not given to all souls, but is nevertheless a defining characteristic of the Christian life. It is the sine qua non of Heaven. It is the essence of Christian life. Wherever one adores Our Lord in truth and earnestness, even a soul very imperfectly purified, we can be sure that grace is working there.

This Christmas, let us pray that the Incarnate Lord will grant us the graces of humility, of adoration, and of an earnest search for the God who remains always hidden from our mortal eyes.

Grace, Gratitude, and the Incarnation

The adoration of the Shepherds. (Source)

I sometimes wonder how all creation wasn’t annihilated by the Incarnation. I find it extraordinary and edifying that God, Being Itself, Omnipotent and Omniscient, Holiness Untouchable, chose to enter this world in a way that did not overwhelm us…that actually raised us, nothing that we are, to Divinity. As T.S. Eliot puts it, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Our continued existence after the Incarnation is a marvel of God’s infinite mercy and condescension as well as His love for us. The point is not even that we are sinful so much as that, in comparison with Infinite Being, we are cosmically insignificant. Yet God chooses to turn His gaze upon us, to love us, even to become one of us. We don’t reckon with this merciful condescension enough. The most fitting response is a profound sense of gratitude.

By contrast, the worst possible response to this love is ingratitude. How common is this sin! How often do we obscure God’s condescension with ungrateful thoughts and acts! Especially at this time of year.

To receive communion sacrilegiously is to disfigure the face of Christ. Yet how common is this sin in Christmastime, when we should celebrate the appearance of that holy face! (Source)

Consider the Masses of Christmas. How many Catholics present themselves for communion who do not have the proper disposition to receive the grace of the sacrament? Worse, how many communions on this holy occasion are not merely unworthy, but actively sacrilegious? How many communions work death in the souls of those who receive at Christmas, a feast that should only impart grace and joy? Is there any other night when, all around the world, so many of the faithful take up the mantle of Judas and betray their Lord in the Sacrament of His eternal love? We ought to make special acts of reparation to the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus throughout the Christmas season. Yet even here, we observe the tremendous condescension of God. He suffers Himself to be blasphemed in this manner the better to augment His glory in the latter end. And He endures all this for love.

I was disturbed to read on Twitter a further example of ingratitude in what should be a season of humble thanksgiving. A priest of the Lexington Diocese, Fr. Jim Sichka, posted a thread on the Feast of the Holy Family in which he wrote, among other things, that “What makes a family holy is living out the Gospel messages of love and hope, and pursuing big dreams for our children.” Without any contextual grounding in the sacraments, this vision of sanctification tends dangerously towards Pelagianism. Fr. Sichka, who is a Papal Missionary of Mercy, later buckled down on this error, writing, “Like it or not, there are many kinds of families. Every kind of family is called to be holy. And, since every person is made in God’s image, each is holy and has inherent dignity given by God.” He was not explicitly describing the baptized; it would seem that Fr. Sichko intends for us to take this statement as a universal descriptor. And while he is right to suggest that all families are called to holiness and that all possess God-given dignity, there is another, far more serious issue here.

Let us leave aside Fr. Sichko’s confusion of is and ought. The real problem here is the Pelagian notion that holiness is inherent in the human being. The opposite is true. In the state of original sin, we are naturally corrupt, deficient, concupiscent, and enslaved to the flesh, the world, and the passions. Holiness is not something we can achieve by our own effort alone. It is rather the supernatural indwelling of the Holy Ghost in us by sacramental grace, especially the grace granted in baptism. This gratuitous presence of the Holy Ghost in our souls is the only true way we can grow in virtue. We must water this growth by the salutary irrigation of deliberate ascesis. Holiness is not natural, but the supernatural repairing and building on nature.

Pietro Perugino’s Virgin and St. Jerome and St. Augustine (1500). May these two anti-Pelagian Doctors pray for us in the holy season of the Nativity. (Source)

It is astounding to find any priest suggesting that grace is unnecessary. It is unnerving to discover a priest who states in public that holiness is intrinsic to the human being. It is dismaying to read of a priest advancing opinions that will lead to lax preparation for holy communion. And it is tragic to find a priest deprecating, overlooking, or downplaying the singular grace vouchsafed to us in the Blessed Sacrament.

This is not a trivial error. It cuts to the very heart of what holiness is and how we acquire it. Is holiness the life of God within us? Or is it something less? Is it something that needs cultivation by sacramental grace and an ongoing life of ascetic endeavor? Or is it something we carry within us from birth? The answers make a difference about how we respond to the mysteries of this holy season. Christmas is preeminently a festival of grace. The utter gratuity of the Incarnation – and thus, of our redemption and sanctification in the sacraments – is the true meaning of Christmas. Pelagianism is unlike other heresies in that it adds a venomous ingredient to error; its essence is ingratitude, directly contrary to the spirit of this holy season.

Let us pray then for a lively faith in the mysteries of grace, for a more ardent jealousy of the Truth, for a renewed desire to follow the Lord in all things, for a generous spirit of adoring reparation, and for an unstinting gratitude as we contemplate the Divine Love who chose to save us by His Incarnation.

A Prayer to the Incarnate Word

The infant High Priest (Source)

O Wisdom, be enthroned in my heart,
O Adonai, inflame my heart,
O Root of Jesse, bloom in my heart,
O Key of David, unlock my heart,
O Dayspring, shine in my heart,
O King of Nations, reign in my heart,
O Emmanuel, abide in my heart,
Now and forevermore.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.

Amen.

The Christmas Tree, Icon of Wisdom

An icon of the Tree of Life. (Source)

Perhaps the most ubiquitous tradition of Christmas in America is decorating a Christmas tree. Whether live or artificial, green or white, festooned in tinsel or bedecked with bells, the Christmas tree is the image that adorns all our houses and heralds the coming of the Yuletide. And not just the houses of Christians. Many who celebrate Christmas as a merely secular holiday will still put up a tree. It just wouldn’t really feel like Christmas without it.

One of the better meditations on the meaning of the Christmas tree. (Source)

Yet the Christian discerns in this symbol something more than just a festive sign of the season.

First, a short excursus about symbols in general. Metaphor opens the speaker to the experience of “augmented reality,” though not at all in the way that phrase has come to be understood in the world of cheap tricks and tacky technology. Pokemon Go is not a metaphor. It’s just an add-on. It discerns nothing essential and establishes no real connections between unlike objects. Metaphor can. The truer the metaphor, the firmer the connection. It’s a dialectical process. Or, if you like a Trinitarian one: two unlike things are drawn together by the speaker, thus forming an entirely new third.

The Sophianic potential of language lies in metaphor. Name and metaphor permit us to imprint, image, and discern a level of reality beyond the merely immediate and sensible. That is why metaphor is impossible in the face of the Beatific Vision. All words die away, since the soul experiences the most heightened level of reality – Being itself.

Sophianic vision relies upon this kind of metaphorical thinking. Without dissolving the dogmas of the faith, Sophiology reads them sideways so as to gain an insight into the mystical realities more properly understood via poetry than, say, the logical language of the manuals. American Sophiologist Dr. Michael Martin has called for a “poetic metaphysics” by which we more potently discern the presence of God in His Wisdom, seen throughout Creation.

What would this “poetic metaphysics” look like beyond textual confines? That is, what would it look like if people actually lived out this search for the Wisdom of God?

For one thing, the soul that sees all in Wisdom will be always immersed in metaphor. The eyes of their heart would discern the connection of lower things to the higher. This is not mere cataphasis, the use of images in prayer. I mean that the daily impressions of life are experienced as taking place on more than one level of reality. The events of the day are read as symbols and metaphors. We encounter this in the life of the Ven. Seraphina di Dio:

The Ven. Seraphina (Source)

“…Anything I looked at I was able to turn into a meditation… When I saw it raining, I thought of the refreshment which the rain brought to the earth and that without it the earth would be arid. I would say: ‘If the water of divine grace did not fall on the soul, it would dry up without providing the fruits of good works.’ … The sight of fish swimming in the sea made me remember how the saints are immersed in God… And in such wise everything, even the slightest things, served me for my spiritual nourishment.”

-Ven. Seraphina di Dio

Such is one example of sapiential living. We might turn to another. Over at Sancrucensis, Pater Edmund Waldstein has furnished a charming passage from St. John of Karpathos:

St. John of Karpathos (Source)

Nothing is more weak and powerless than a spider. It has no possessions, makes no journeys overseas, does not engage in litigation, does not grow angry, and amasses no savings. Its life is marked by complete gentleness, self-restraint and ex­treme stillness. It does not meddle in the affairs of others, but minds its own business; calmly and quietly it gets on with its own work. To those who love idleness it says, in effect : ‘If anyone refuses to work, he should have nothing to eat’ (2 Thess. 3 : 1o). The spider is far more silent than Pythagoras, whom the ancient Greeks admired more than any other philosopher because of the control that he exercised over his tongue. Although Pythagoras did not talk with everyone, yet he did speak occasionally in secret with his closest friends; and often he lavished nonsensical remarks on oxen and eagles. He abstained altogether from wine and drank only water. The spider, however, achieves more than Pythagoras: it never utters a single word, and abstains from water as well as from wine. Living in this quiet fashion, humble and weak, never going outside or wandering about according to its fancy, always hard at work – nothing could be more lowly than the spider. Nevertheless the Lord, ‘who dwells on high but sees what is lowly’ (Ps . 1 1 3 : 5-6 . LXX), extends His providence even to the spider, sending it food every day, and causing tiny insects to fall into its web.

-St. John of Karpathos

One could name many other saints who exhibit this Sophianic tendency of vision through metaphor. For St. Paul of the Cross, as Fr. Faber notes,

St. Paul of the Cross, arguably the greatest Catholic mystic of the 18th century. (Source)

“…everything served to remind him of God, and he used to imagine that all creatures cried out to entreat the love of man for Him who made them. He was often observed, when walking in the fields, to gaze earnestly at the flowers as he went along and to touch them with his stick, saying, ‘Hold your tongues; hold your tongues!’ And he used to tell his religious that the flowers were always calling upon them to lift up their hearts in love and adoration toward their heavenly Creator.”

-Fr. Faber, All For Jesus, Ch. 6, pg. 153

When carefully fostered in the soul – usually by ascetic rigors and conscious efforts of love – it ceases to be merely Sophianic and takes on an iconographic character, such that everything in our field of sensible experience becomes a symbol of union with the higher realm it represents. Namely, God. Thus can we preserve the presence of God in our waking hours out of prayer.

So what does this have to do with Christmas trees?

The decoration of a Christmas tree is, in a certain sense, a concrete realization of this process. Bringing a part of the natural world into our home imprints something of the human and thus of the spiritual. We can see this with animals who have been domesticated. Cats and dogs become part of the family. We discern their personalities. They are not just “dog” but “Buster” or “Gabby.” Thus, name and metaphor go hand in hand in elevating the merely natural to something approximating the human.

We don’t personalize Christmas trees. But in placing them in our homes and filling them with glittering lights and baubles, we heighten the tree into something more than what it was. As we were commanded to do in Eden, we improve the creation and make it radiant. We lend it a new beauty, the fruit of our Godlike creativity. We place a star or an angel at its peak, and a reminder of Our Lord’s Nativity at its base. Thus we turn it into a little Tree of Life, reaching between Heaven and Earth, the natural world manifested in the splendor of its potential divinization.*

In other words, the power of metaphor allows us to experience the tree as something more than what it is at the purely material level. It becomes for us an icon of Holy Wisdom, of Christ abiding in His redeemed Creation.

I am reminded of today’s O Antiphon.

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

-O Antiphon for 17 Dec.

These words are manifested in so many ways throughout time and space. They don’t just belong to Advent. Yet the Christmas Tree can (if we come to it with a Sophianic imagination) serve as one meditative example of Wisdom “sweetly ordering all things” in this holy season.

An icon of Holy Wisdom (Source)

It’s no surprise that Archpriest Sergius Bulgakov wrote favorably of the Christmas Tree.

*I realize of course that not all families use real trees, and that they don’t all place a Nativity under it. But even here, the power of metaphor enters in. In calling an assemblage of wire or aluminum or plastic a “tree,” we are already entering into the world of metaphor and artifice. In that case, we are only one degree removed from what I have described above.