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)

Elsewhere: A Meditation on Faith

The Theological Virtues, Raphael (Source)

I would like to refer my readers to a very good, short post by an oblate friend of mine who goes by Br. Gregory. He writes about the various figures whom he calls “Online Catholic Paladins,” men who used to be prominent in the world of the Catholic blogosphere but who have since largely fallen away from the faith. Although he does not name him, I was put in mind of Steve Skojec, whose very public move away from the Church has been documented, often in quite moving terms, on Substack and Twitter.

I found Br. Gregory’s thoughts helpful and apt. In particular, I was impressed with his description of the arrival of grace in his own life. He writes,

Personal circumstances not withstanding, I have to ask – did these paladins only have an intellectual faith? How did they fall victim to their own doubts if they seemed to always have an answer? Did their faith ever descend from their mind into their heart? Was their living out their faith only “I do this because it is what is expected” or was it because they had actually experienced the inbreaking of grace, because they had felt His presence in some ineffable way?
And who am I that I should have been given such a grace, I who still squander the gift that was given that night? How do I pass on this gift to my children, when nothing I can do can give them my experience, which was given to me freely, generously and undeservingly? Will the faith that I am trying to pass on to them ever touch their innermost being? Will it penetrate their heart, or will it remain in the realm of the “theoretical”, a faith that is accepted simply because it was passed on, without ever giving them a glimpse of the divine?

Br. Gregory, Inclina Aureum Cordis Tui

Read the whole thing.

The grace of the Lord comes and goes where it will. May Providence vouchsafe such grace to all of us.

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.

An Ecclesiological Note

Perhaps the fundamental flaw of our ecclesiology is that we think the Church was founded. By that I mean, that Christ came, set up the Church, sent the Holy Spirit, and it’s all been moving onward, outward, and upward ever since. One points to the words of Our Savior – “thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” – and leaves the question at that. (Matt. 16:18). A somewhat more sophisticated version of this argument extends the Church’s life – her gestation, if you will – into the covenants of the Old Testament.

This kind of ecclesiology weds the Church to the vicissitudes of history, and the necessary fruit of this unhappy union is a Tradition that oscillates between mythopoetic antiquarianism and charismatic presentism. Tradition is either an ark to carry us across the sea of changes, or the constantly renewed speech-act of the Pope, or people, or Council, or some ill-defined combination of the three. And whether one reads this historical narrative in a traditionalist or a progressive key, one always ends up interpreting the story of the Church in the light of the past’s dying embers.

Icon of the Synaxis of All Saints. (Source)

But that is not the model of the Church we find in Scripture. The Church which is the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, the Redeemed Heaven and Earth, all this is the self-same Church that sojourns in history (Rev. 21:1-2). But in the Apocalypse we observe her at her true birth beyond time. It is in the culminating moment of all creaturely existence, in her final and lasting Union with God in His essence eternal, that the Church takes her true being. It is the bright light of that ageless day which illuminates history, and not the ever-dimming torches of chronological time. Indeed, history furnishes no light of its own, only dim reflections of God’s glory that we misunderstand in uncountable ways. In the words of the Apostle, “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).

In the same letter, he writes, “And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:28). Here we have an image of the eschaton – that redeemed dimension in which everything that is, is Christ, by the grace of participation in Him. The eschaton is thus non-different from both Christ and the Church. All souls participating in the eschaton likewise share in Christ’s singular mediation before the Father, albeit in ways proper to their scope. Humans are His Body, the Angels are His High Priestly garments, and the new heavens and the new earth are the temple. For the eschaton – the Wedding Feast of the Lamb – mediates God’s salvific action with creaturely, chronological reality (Rev. 19:9). It is like the upmost layer or outer shell of time, giving all creation its true shape. It is the blissful union by which God weds the cosmos.

A genuinely eschatological ecclesiology, an ecclesiology that takes apocalypse seriously, must demote any definition of Catholicity that relies too heavily upon the unstable facts of history. If the Church is, as the Apostle writes, “the pillar and ground of the truth,” then it must be rooted in a life that exists beyond the vicissitudes and fallibility of the creaturely world. (1 Tim. 3:15). However, this raises a question of knowledge with soteriological ramifications.

Too often we hear from Catholics (or Orthodox) in an apologetic mood that “We know we are in the True Church because we have Apostolic Succession.” No, you are in the Church because you are saved by the grace of Christ; your Judgment has already taken place beyond time, your eternal place in glory allotted, your soul blissfully united to the Lord – but you haven’t consciously arrived there yet. This is the mystery of Predestination, but not, as commonly misconceived, in a linear, chronologically anterior direction. Election does not happen before time, but above it – or rather, both before and after history. When St. Paul writes, “And whom he predestinated, them he also called. And whom he called, them he also justified. And whom he justified, them he also glorified,” he is fundamentally describing a single divine work in the eschaton. (Rom. 8:30). To be in the Church is to be a child of God. However, the grace of divine adoption is eschatological in both its root and in its orientation. Scripture says, “He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.” (Rev. 21:7). And elsewhere, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God.” (Rev. 21:3). This image, which comes from one of the final visions of St. John, depicts the Church’s eschatological life, and not her earthly existence. Thus, only the Saints in Heaven are the Church, properly speaking; the damned have no part in Christ’s Body. Ultimately, there is no third category.

The True Church is thus, like God Himself, hidden. She abides in and beneath the purple trappings of worldly glory, but takes no part in it. The tendrils of grace that reach down from the supernal world move invisibly and invincibly to the hearts that are hers; they are as so many crooked and narrow paths up to the temple, lit by the lamp of Revelation. As the Psalmist sings, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” (Psalm 118/119: 105).

This is not to say that apostolic succession is unimportant. It has its uses, insofar as it preserves and passes on the saving truth of the Scriptures and Creeds, the threefold order of ministry, and the seven sacraments by which we receive certain graces. In this sense, it is a gift of God’s condescension to us mortals. But apostolic succession is not constitutive of the Church’s essence. Only final participation in the eternal life of Christ can do that.

Christ the Judge, mural in St. John’s Episcopal Church, Memphis, TN. Mural by John DeRosen. (Source)

Which brings me to a question I have been wrestling with lately: what is Catholicity? When we confess in the Nicene Creed that the Church is “Catholic,” what does that really mean? The common answers one usually hears on this point are either “communion with the Pope” or “possesses apostolic succession.” The first of these is an irrelevant, Ultramontane fable. The second simply confounds the question of Catholicity with the question of Apostolicity.

My own attempt at an answer would divide the question thus: we may speak of what Catholicity looks like, and we may speak of what Catholicity is. Catholicity looks like those things I have already mentioned: teaching the faith of the Scriptures and Creeds, prayerfully distributing the seven sacraments, and preserving the threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons in apostolic succession. In what it seems to be, Catholicity means wholeness. But Catholicity is participation in the eschatological Church which is already united to Christ, that is, the whole body of the saved, whosoever and wheresoever they might be. In this sense of its utmost reality, Catholicity means universality. Thus, Catholicity means different things when applied to the Church visible and the Church invisible, with the latter taking priority.

The temporary Church visible and the everlasting Church invisible are never completely commensurate. But one can nevertheless “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” more confidently in a church with these elements, and where one can be reasonably sure that the priest is offering a true oblation to the Father. (Phil. 2:12). One can never truly be sure that one is a member of the Universal Church simply by virtue of the necessary historical features I have outlined. A Christian can still be damned, even if he is a churchgoer; surely, no Catholic who is paying attention could say otherwise. As we move through time, who can know whether any of us will prove to be Saints in that last and most surprising Day? “Watch and pray.” (Matt. 26:41). As M. Quesnel said of the two thieves at the Crucifixion, “Un se convertit à la mort, espérez; un seul, craignez.”

I said earlier that this issue is a question of knowledge with implications for our salvation. But that’s not quite true. One’s adherence to the True Church is not a question of knowledge, even with all the best historical or empirical evidence we can gather. It is, rather, a question of faith. Too many Catholics are uncomfortable with real faith. The over-exalted epistemic claims of our church means that far too often we treat our doctrines and even our own salvation as matters of knowable fact, and end up forgetting that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1). Let us pray to receive the grace of rediscovering epistemic humility, for with it, faith will follow.

A Prayer from Port-Royal on Saint Augustine’s Day

Saint Augustine, Philippe de Champaigne, c.1645-50 (Detail) – (Source)

On Saint Augustine – A Prayer of M. Hamon

O God, who, after having shown to us in Saint Augustine the very excess into which corrupt nature causes us to fall, hast also caused us to see in him the strength and the empire of Thy Grace over our hearts, grant us, we beseech thee, so perfect a knowledge of our extreme misery and of Thy infinite mercy, that, expecting everything from Thee, and nothing from ourselves, we might hope fully in Thee by defying ourselves completely.

O God, who in embracing Saint Augustine with Thy Love, and in elevating him above all men by the knowledge of Thy Truth, hast placed him in Thy Church as a fiery and shining lamp, so that he might illuminate and defend her by his doctrine, and console and edify her by his sanctity; grant, by the help of his charitable intercession, that we might imitate his virtues; and, at his example, rejoicing only in the truth, and having taste only for the fruits of charity, we might despise this mortal life by the hope and feeling of the all-divine life which Thou hast promised us; so that, loving Thee alone, we might also place all our happiness in Thee alone.

Thus we beseech thee by Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(From Jean Hamon, Entretiens d’une âme avec Dieu, New Edition (Avignons, 1740), pp. 405-06; original translation by The Amish Catholic)

Difficulties

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899 (Source)
  1. Why does God create so many souls that He has no intention of saving?
    1.a. Take the massa damnata of St. Augustine. What is the point of creating a human soul – ostensibly out of infinite, perfect love – and not saving it?
    1.a.i. The argument that God allows us to be damned to preserve our free will is meaningless in the face of the basic anthropology of the Christian tradition, which holds salvation itself to be an unmerited and supernatural grace. Man cannot save himself, and in the state of sin, rightly deserves damnation. But why bother creating so much life – so many unique and irreplaceable souls – if you intend to preserve the vast majority of these souls in everlasting torment without any reciprocal knowledge or love?
    1.a.i.1. There can be no softening of this point. The very clear implication of the New Testament, and even of the Old Testament, is that the vast majority of mankind is hellbound, or at least cut off from God. This was a fairly normal view until quite recently in Christian history, and is not unique to Catholics, Protestants, or Orthodox.
    1.a.i.2. God could conceivably create souls simply to damn them. After all, as St. Paul says, “Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump, to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?” (Romans 9:21). But is this the act of a God who is Love, to fashion a sentient entity for the express purpose of eternal torture – just to manifest His own quality of justice in perpetuity?
    1.a.ii. In the Christian East, there is still not a satisfactory answer here. Even should we accept the theology of St. Maximus the Confessor (and later, Bl. John Duns Scotus) that mankind’s purpose is to become deified, and thus that the Incarnation would have happened for our glorification even without original sin, this position does nothing to explain why the vast majority of the human race should be committed to hellfire. It does nothing to explain why almost everyone who has ever lived (including most so-called Christians) should face an eternity of unimaginable and unmitigated torment at the physical, emotional, and spiritual levels.
    1.a.ii.1. It is a dogma of the faith that at the Last Judgment, all the dead will be raised bodily – some to everlasting life, others to everlasting punishment. Hell’s torments are therefore not merely spiritual, but physical. St. Thomas Aquinas declares that the fires of hell will be corporeal. (ST Suppl. III. Q. 97, Art. 5).
    1.b. Let’s move beyond the human. Why does God bother to create so much life that’s wasted? There are sentient, ensouled beings that serve no human purpose.
    1.b.i. It is not enough to suggest that animals exist to serve man, per Genesis 1-3.
    1.b.i.1. Does a leopard eating a gazelle, hundreds of miles from human settlement, serve mankind? Does a whale locked in the deadly embrace of a squid contribute at all towards man’s dominion or salvation or even his punishment? Multiply this factor by billions – for we must include the insects, as well as most wild animals that have ever lived. Why create this life if it is all a waste?
    1.b.i.1.a. Doesn’t this massive wastage imply that there is no spiritual or even metaphysical point to animal life on its own terms?
    1.b.ii. If we mere humans love our domestic animals in an imperfect way, and yet we still are saddened at the thought that they are lost forever at their death, what would God’s perfect love for His creatures look like? Why should we follow the Thomists and declare their souls extinct upon death?
    1.b.iii. Does this position of extinction not reduce God to an imperfect creator, one who makes far, far more sentient beings than He has any intention of preserving – thus trivializing His love of so many creatures to virtual non-existence?
    1.b.iii.a. It would be possible to object here that animals and humans do not have the same kind of souls – more on this at 4.b.i.-4.b.ii.2.b.
    1.b.iii.b. Put another way – doesn’t this picture of God’s relationship with non-human, sentient creatures make Him appear wasteful to the point of active cruelty? Doesn’t this picture give us an image of a fundamentally frivolous creator cruelly indifferent to, not just the temporal suffering, but the very existence of His living creations?
    1.b.iii.c. Isn’t this implication drawn yet more forcefully in the case of damned humans?
    1.c. Can God – who is infinite, perfect, loving, and Being-in-Itself – have any true and lasting foes?
  2. In 1 Corinthians, we read that “Love is patient, love is kind” (1 Cor. 13:1). If God is Love, then it follows that God is patient. Does Christian soteriology suggest as much?
    2.a. In what sense is God patient? In His terms, or ours?
    2.a.i. Can an eternal, infinite Being be described as “patient” if He condemns a soul to equally eternal torment on the basis of choices made – or even graces which He Himself withholds – in the course of some seven or so decades?
    2.a.i.1. Surely there are some crimes that deserve far greater punishment than we mortals can imagine. But wouldn’t eternal damnation, which afflicts both body and soul, be necessarily disproportionate to any crime committed by any human subject?
    2.a.i.2. Quite apart from such serious crimes – sexual assault, child abuse, genocide, serial killing, war rape, etc. – that could reasonably merit eternal damnation, let’s consider lesser offenses that Western Christianity has historically considered damnable.
    2.a.i.2.a. Should a soul who dies suddenly and impenitently after masturbating be damned?
    2.a.i.2.b. Should a soul who dies without reconciling to the Church, after sincerely losing his faith as the victim of spiritual abuse, be damned?
    2.a.i.2.c. Should a soul who, having heard about Christianity but having rejected it due to the poor example of its ministers, and who dies in another religion, be damned?
    2.a.i.2.d. Should a soul who, beset by serious mental illness or unthinkable distress, commits suicide, be damned?
    2.a.i.2.d.i Traditional Catholic teaching, and even much traditional Protestantism, would answer in the affirmative to all these abstract questions, while refraining from any declaration prejudicial to God’s actual judgment in the case of particular souls.
    2.a.i.2.d.i.1. Is this religion reasonable where it should be reasonable?
    2.a.i.2.d.i.2. Is it humane?
    2.a.i.2.d.i.3. What conclusions must we draw about a religion that needs to ignore, change, or trim its own moral teachings in order to provide human consolation to the grieving?
    2.a.i.2.d.i.3.a. Do our conclusions become more grievous when the religion that does so claims to be a unique revelation safeguarded by the preservative quality of the Divine dwelling in its teaching authority, or in the unchanging deposit of its doctrine, or in the infallibility of its Scriptures?
    2.a.i.2.e. Is a soul in hell glorifying to God in itself? If not, then what is the point of its existence in the first place?
    2.a.i.2.e.i. St. Thomas alleges that the Saints in Heaven will be able to peer down into Hell, without pity, so as to rejoice in the just punishment they witness. (ST Suppl. III. Q. 94. Art. 1-3).
    2.a.i.2.e.i.1. Does this image of the saints preserve into beatitude the cardinal virtue of the Christian life, namely, charity?
    2.a.i.2.e.i.2. What kind of glory does God need or want or gain from the eternal, penal torture of a finite being? Or, indeed, of the eternal torture of many such beings?
  3. Are eternal damnation, eternal salvation, and temporary purgation the only options for the human soul after death?
    3.a. If the philosophical basis for this claim is an anthropology that defines man as the union of a single discreet body and a single discreet soul, as in ST I. Q.75. Art. 4, then what happens to our soteriology if we redefine the human subject?
    3.a.i. For instance, why shouldn’t we accept that, instead of our particular material embodiment – which is manifestly mutable, corruptible, and gross – our true self is an indestructible, immaterial, subtle spirit?
    3.b. Why shouldn’t a soul return to another mortal body after death?
    3.b.i. Wouldn’t reincarnation, which thus extends a soul’s spiritual journey through multiple lifetimes, be more consistent with the patience of an infinite and perfectly loving Being?
  4. How are we to understand the basic relationship of God and creation?
    4.a. Is there a complete distinction between creator and creature? If so, what does this say about God?
    4.a.i. Wouldn’t the fact that God is Being Itself rule out the possibility of a complete distinction between creator and creature?
    4.b. If God is Being Itself, then of necessity, all discreet entities that exist must subsist in Him. He must also subsist in Them, albeit in a radically different fashion.
    4.b.i. What kinds of entities exist, according to the classical Christian system?
    4.b.i.1. God is not an entity among entities, but rather the very Being (ens) in which they “live and move and have [their] being.” (Acts 17:28).
    4.b.i.2. Angels and Demons are intellectual and rational spirits without matter.
    4.b.i.3. Humans are intellectual and rational spirits who are embodied.
    4.b.i.3.a. Is this definition capable of distinction between the genus (Human) and the species (Individual subject)? That is, can we preserve this definition while accounting for the objection raised at 3.a.i?
    4.b.i.3.a.i. If man, being “made in the image and likeness of God” (Gen. 1:27) shares his rational intellect with the Angels, in what sense – if any – is this image and likeness shared with the Angels? Put another way, is it really distinctive of the human race?
    4.b.i.2. Animals have sensitive and embodied souls, but these souls lack intellect and rationality.
    4.b.i.3. Plants have vegetative souls but lack reason or sensitive animation.
    4.b.i.4. The rest of existence consists of inanimate matter without spirit or sentience.
    4.b.ii. Is this system compelling?
    4.b.ii.1. Doesn’t this system take distinctions among creatures as its organizing principle, rather than distinctions within the manifold relationship of creator and creature?
    4.b.ii.2. Wouldn’t a better metaphysical system divide categories of entities by virtue of the way that they relate to the very ground of Being as such?
    4.b.ii.2.a. Isn’t the chief ontological distinction between independent (divine) and dependent (creaturely) being?
    4.b.ii.2.a.i. Doesn’t this division preserve both difference and the essential unity of Being?
    4.b.ii.2.b. Isn’t the second ontological distinction between pure soul (God), ensouled dependent beings, and non-ensouled dependent beings?
    4.b.iii. Sophiology has opened up again in our time the question of a “world soul,” but no Christian denomination has authoritatively taught this as doctrine. The question must be laid aside for now.
    4.b.iv. Following Sinistrari and mindful of the times, we must acknowledge the possibility of other intelligent beings, whether on other planets or in other, subtler dimensions. But barring proof, we must lay aside this question as well.
    4.c. If God, the ground of Being, is in all entities, is He in the souls of the damned?
    4.c.i. If the souls of the damned continue to exist for eternity, is God not there, at least in their preservation?
    4.c.ii. Is it reasonable to think that God would subject Himself to everlasting torture?
    4.c.ii.1. Wouldn’t this portion of damned eternal existence, already seen to be much larger than saved eternal existence in its human aspect, be of necessity less perfect than an eternal existence which is wholly saved, wholly glorified, wholly assumed to the Divine Nature?
  5. Why must there only be one Incarnation?
    5.a. Assuming God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, why should He only come personally once into material existence?
    5.a.i. It may be said that any God who had to come in numerous incarnations would thereby demonstrate His insufficiency in accomplishing His mission the first time. For an omnipotent Being can accomplish His ends without failure.
    5.a.i.1. But this objection assumes that God would only come if compelled in some way by creatures; however, we cannot compel God in any way.
    5.a.i.2. Any divine incarnation would thus, of necessity, be completely gratuitous. So couldn’t God conceivably incarnate as many times as He wishes, for His own purposes?
    5.a.ii. It may be said that God incarnates to affirm the essential goodness of matter, as in the refrain of Genesis 1.
    5.a.ii.1. However, this objection only suggests one good reason that God incarnates; it does not prove that there can only be one incarnation.
    5.a.ii.2. Moreover, although this reason occasionally appears in popular discourse, no one really believes that the point of any incarnation was to show the essential goodness of matter, which would, at best, be an auxiliary effect and not the telos thereof.
    5.a.iii. It may be said that God incarnates only once so as to manifest Himself as He is, once and for all.
    5.a.iii.1. This objection fails, however, insofar as it does not consider that God can present Himself in any way He wishes; there is nothing but (ostensibly) our own fallen nature that caused God to become human and not angelic. Why shouldn’t He appear in other material guises, if He wishes?
    5.a.iii.2. Furthermore, the Scriptures are full of theophanies that do not require incarnation. Thus, self-manifestation cannot be an argument for the singularity of the incarnation, as it is not a sufficient reason for it in the first place.
    5.a.iii.3. God, as an infinite Being, may have capacities and attributes not best expressed in human form. So if God really wanted to manifest Himself in incarnation, would it not follow that He may choose to incarnate in forms other than the strictly human? Perhaps, for instance, as an angel, a being subtler and thus nobler than mankind?
    5.a.iv. It may be argued that God can only incarnate once because He has chosen a singular people and one line of covenants by which to save the world and glorify His Name; consequently, the whole body of the elect are one in His single body, which He first had to assume, and that once for all.
    5.a.iv.1. This is the best argument for the singularity of the Incarnation, as is another like it – that it is more fitting to the Divine Majesty to have one mother, and not many.
    5.a.iv.1.a. Though this objection does not account for a possible incarnation that does not emerge from biological processes.
    5.a.iv.2. Moreover, this argument raises again some of the metaphysical and soteriological issues at 4.c-4.c.ii. above. For at the deepest level of reality, both the elect and the damned are one in their ontological position vis-à-vis absolute being.
  6. What is the point of grace if it does not sanctify?
    6.a. If grace is not efficacious enough to actually turn the heart towards God and away from evil, then what good is it?
    6.a.i. Put another way, why is it that a soul who receives the sacraments regularly, believes the creeds and doctrines of the Church, attempts to live in charity, and has a regular prayer life makes no progress in any of his cardinal temptations or sins?
    6.a.i.1. What are we to make of a religion whose priests, receiving the grace of the sacraments (and even God Himself) every day, nevertheless show no signs of growth in holiness?
    6.a.i.2. What are we to make of a religion where even the local proximity of God Himself in the Blessed Sacrament is not enough to banish the most horrific of vices?
    6.a.i.3. What are we to make of a religion whose visible head, allegedly supported by special graces, acquiesces to the cover-up of the most wicked of crimes?
    6.a.i.4. What are we to make of a religion that, taking all of the above, nevertheless claims that God Himself sustains it with supernatural graces, including (especially) the graces of sanctification and of an abiding Real Presence in the Church?
    6.b. Would any of this tension exist in a religion that made no such claims, or at least tempered them?
    6.c. It could be said that Providence removes, restrains, or hides grace as God sees fit. But what is the point of a visible church if not to dispense grace in dependable ways?
  7. In considering God, shouldn’t our rule be to favor what is most fitting to the Divine Majesty?
    7.a. Is Christianity?

Eight Years a Catholic

Massimo Stanzione, The Seven Archangels, 17th c. (Source)

Eight years ago today, I received the sacrament of Confirmation at St. Brigid’s Church, Johns Creek, GA, and united myself to the one true Church founded by Jesus Christ. So much has happened since then – especially in the last year. This will be the second Holy Week that I miss as a Catholic, thanks to the pandemic.

I usually dedicate each year in my life as a Catholic to a mystery of the Faith, or to a holy person. This last year I gave to the Precious Blood of Jesus, by whose efficacious power alone I think I have retained my faith. I would like to dedicate this next year to the Holy Angels and Archangels. I ask for their prayers and protection in the coming year, and for yours.

Hieronymus Wierix, St. Michael and Archangels (The Seven Archangels), Metropolitan Museum of Art (Source)

On Sexuality, Christianity, and Language

The knight Richard Puller von Hohenburg and his servant, burned before the walls of Zürich for sodomy, 1482. (Source)

The recent controversy in ACNA about the language of homosexuality has been deeply unedifying. It has been aggravated in the last few days by an open, co-signed letter that, while doing the bare minimum, nevertheless was far more affirming than the original pastoral statement to which it replied. In a move I can only describe as scandalous, the principal author’s bishop then stepped in and ordered him to take it down.

I am for the most part uninterested in the internal politics of ACNA. I have friends in that communion, and after all, it is neither my circus nor my monkeys. I am, however, keenly interested in the issue at stake: what kinds of language sexual-minority Christians use, why, and what this says about their broader place within Christianity. Especially as some of these same issues have come up repeatedly in the Catholic context as well. That relevance to my own situation moves me to write, when I might otherwise keep silence.

When the original statement came out last month (no pun intended), a gay Christian friend of mine wrote, “I am starting to think that this tired conversation about sexual identity language is actually *designed* to keep the Church from caring for sexual minorities by addressing its pervasive homophobia.” Much of what follows therefore comes from what I wrote in reply, with a few edits and additions here and there.

It seems to me that this debate about language – the alleged moral valences of words like “homosexual” or “gay,” and whether or not it is appropriate for Christians to self-identify with these words – serves a multipronged function:

(1) It distracts from urgent issues, like sexual minorities being disproportionately subject to homelessness, political oppression, intimidation, healthcare discrimination, targeted murder, and suicide.

(2) It subsequently distracts from the historical and ongoing complicity of heterosexual Christians in these phenomena, and absolves them of any effort to help fix it.

(3) It puts the entire onus of subjectivity-formation on the gay Christian individual and thus places them in a defensive posture which prevents them from making further demands. It does this in three ways:

(4) It deprives them of a language in which to articulate their own subjectivity and needs.

(5) It isolates them by preventing them from using the language by which they can form bonds of solidarity with other sexual minorities.

(6) It further isolates them by cutting them off from the history of other sexual minorities, whatever terms they may have used (sodomites, inverts, homosexuals, fairies, queers, gays, LGBT, etc.).

(7) All of which is to say, the debate mainly functions to control sexual minority Christians by making their own experience more and more illegible to them.

(8) It works very well because it exhausts a lot of emotional energy from LGBTQ+ Christians. This is intrinsic to the debate’s function as a mechanism of control.

(9) It is doubly effective when, as in the ACNA document, it reverts to the most clinical and pathologized language imaginable. “Christians afflicted with” or “who struggle with same-sex attraction” is not only unwieldy, it’s obviously stigmatizing. SSA might as well be leprosy.

(10 This is not to say that gay Christians who feel that the language of “same-sex attraction” or SSA best expresses their experience shouldn’t use it. We should all use the language that best fits our own embodied story. But when straight Christians use it this way, they are robbing them of the freedom to make that decision for themselves.

(11) In the Roman Catholic Church, there is the added rigmarole around vocations. No man with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” can be ordained…but what does this mean? If you have sex with men (or at least want to) but don’t call yourself gay, do you have these tendencies? What are we to make of the considerable number of gay priests that are already ordained? It hides hypocrisy.

(12) I am reminded, for instance, of what Roy Cohn says in Angels in America.

(13) The most insidious thing about the ACNA statement, though, isn’t even the matter of terminology. It’s the deeper point from which the terminological discussion grew: a claim that homosexuals can become straight again.

(14) If this were coming from an old-school queer theorist or even second-wave feminist who insisted on the radical flexibility of gender and sexuality, I wouldn’t have too much of an issue. But the obvious problem here is the latent moral imperative that moves from is to ought (also the erasure of bisexuals, but that’s a bit of a tangent).

(15) Going from “some people can move between kinds of attraction” to “you must become attracted to the opposite sex,” as this document does implicitly, is an awful lapse into conversion-therapy thinking. And we know how harmful this is, especially to queer youth.

(16) But this pathologization is itself, once again, a mechanism of control. Religions are social bodies that require adherents in order to survive. And like it or not, gays have historically been a major part of the Christian fold – including in Anglicanism!

(17) The reasoning advanced by ACNA is thus, quite precisely, an ideology. It is a logic that helps the oppressed buy into their own oppression. They are hardly unique in this; many in our own Church of Rome offer the same false narrative for the same ends.

(18) I would like to end this thread on a hopeful note, though I have very little hope to speak of. The best I can say is that LGBT Christians need to make their own communities. We need to use the terms that best express our own subjectivity. This is quite apart from the issue of sexual ethics, which does not hinge on what we call ourselves.

(19) Straight Christians, including Catholics, should accept that we are going to use the terms that we choose. It is not up to them. Their time would be better spent helping on the very urgent issues I outlined earlier. And maybe trying to understand what it’s like for (Christian) sexual minorities in the Church and in society at large.

(20) Finally – the best thing to help on the issues of terminology is for sexual-minority Christians, where it is safe to do so, to come out. Even clergy. Articulating your own experience is truly liberating, even as it opens up a new vulnerability. But freedom is worth it. Honesty is worth it. Visibility is worth it. Life is worth it.

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.