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.

The God Who Loves to Be Unknown

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Christmas at the Brompton Oratory. (Source)

We come at last to the feast of the Incarnation, the brilliant night of the Godhead’s triumphal entry into creation. But the mysteries here are too vast and too bright for our untrained eyes. Let us therefore ascend to higher things by way of lower ones.

A phrase that St. Philip Neri was always repeating to his disciples was Amare Nesciri—”to love to be to unknown.” This injunction lies at the heart of St. Philip’s idiosyncratic sense of mortification. The chief thing was not to punish the body through long fasts and arduous ascesis. Far better was the mortification of the “razionale,” that proud and self-commanding reason common to us all. How often would St. Philip say to his penitents, “The sanctity of a man lies in the breadth of three fingers,” and pointedly lay those fingers on his forehead.

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The Madonna Appearing to St. Philip Neri, Sebastiano Conca, 1740. It is no accident that the vast majority of St. Philip’s iconography shows him in an ecstasy, venerating the Virgin and Christ Child. (Source)

The outlandish practical jokes, the daily confessions, the severe and thankless workload he imposed on his sons; everything tended to mortify the intellect and cultivate humility. Like T.S. Eliot, St. Philip knew that “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless” (East Coker II). And for St. Philip, humility found its greatest expression in “loving to be unknown.” 

In a certain sense, this fact hardly strikes us as noteworthy. All the greatest saints were humble and taught humility to other, lesser souls. But how marvelously unique is St. Philip’s via humilitatis! To better grasp his singular path of perfection, it would behoove us to turn briefly to other saints first.

St. Benedict makes perfection in humility a physical, and even visible, matter. The monk who has achieved the Twelfth Degree of humility goes about with his head and eyes ever downcast, pondering his guilt and preparing himself for Judgment (Regula VII). In this state, the monk is spiritually united to Christ on the cross. As one eminent and trustworthy commentator has it, “The bowed head of the crucified Jesus, and of the monk in whom the Holy Ghost reproduces the image of His death, signifies a total adhesion to the will of the Father.” The monk’s humility is cruciform, stained by the Precious Blood as it flows freely from the holy wound in Christ’s side.

St. Ignatius stands apart as well. Ever spurring his sons on with a single battle cry Magis! Magis!“Greater! Greater!”he demands a humility that can only grow in the self-effacing pursuit of excellence for God. Jesuits must act. Like Christ in His ministry, they have no place to lay their heads (Luke 9:58). But Christ was not always going to and fro. His active life was marked by a profound interiority. He was often withdrawing for times of recollection and prayer. And thus the Jesuit humbles himself like Christ through his Examen, a conscious effort at humbling one’s self before God in an honest review of the day. The Jesuit’s proper humility thus bears a striking resemblance to that of Our Lord during those three momentous years.

We could find similar likenesses all through the glorious garden of the Church. Consider the contemplative humility of Carmel, drawn doubly from Christ on Tabor and Christ in Nazareth. Or ponder the humility of St. Dominic, by which we disappear entirely in the singular and all-absorbing Truth of the Word. How like Christ the preacher is the Dominican in his humility! And need we point to the way in which Franciscans draw their model of humility from the unremitting poverty of Our Lord? Thus, the Holy Ghost has showered the Church with various views of Christ’s one inexhaustible humility.

What, then, is left to St. Philip? How may his peculiar spirit and sense of humility draw us closer to Christ’s own humility? In what way can we find the God of the Universe in the simple words, Amare Nesciri?

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Nativity, Federico Barocci, 1597. Now in the Prado, Madrid. Barocci was St. Philip’s favorite artist. (Source)

St. Philip would have us love to be unknown. And so he leads us to the God who loves to be unknown, the God who willingly entered into human obscurity, who put off His glory, who was content to sleep under the watch of peasants and shepherds and beasts of burden. St. Philip brings us, gently but firmly, to gaze upon the face of the Infant Christ, true icon of humility. In the newborn Deity of Bethlehem, there are no clear signs of divinityonly the ineffable sweetness that seems to mark His features, a sweetness He will impart to the hearts of all His saints.

St. Philip is eminently the saint of the Divine Arrival. His whole life was marked by Pentecost, and his devotion to the Eucharist was legendary. So, too, is he invisibly bound to the conception and birth of the God-Man. His own deeply domestic spirituality drew its core of humble charity from the life of the Holy Family in Bethlehem. See the characters laid out before us: silent St. Joseph, the all-meek Virgin, the wakeful and overawed shepherds. At the heart of it all lies the sleeping babe, “Verbum infans, the Word without a word; the eternal Word not able to speak a word” as Lancelot Andrewes puts it. What a picture of humility! Here is a delightful paradox. God has entered the world in darkness and obscurity, that He might commune more profoundly with those few quiet souls. Here we have no mere abasement, but a stripping away of everything extraneous so that a deeper knowledge might follow. The God who is self-diffusive Goodness nevertheless hides and loves to be unknown, that He might savor the intimacy which only true humility can find.

Let Angel choirs sound their celestial praises; let powers and principalities quake with awe; let even the sky hail a new champion among the sidereal host; yet “let all mortal flesh keep silence,” for here lies the newborn God asleep. Above, music. Below, silence. Christmas is not just about the joyful manifestation of God. It is just as much about the astounding paradox at the heart of our faith, the way that the Infinite and Omnipotent God deepened the mystery of all things by robing himself in lowly humanity. Neither Jew nor pagan could have conceived of such a scandalous humility.

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The Mystical Nativity, Sandro Botticelli, c. 1500-1501. National Gallery, London. (Source)

And that is the humility that St. Philip Neri taught. We love to be unknown so that we might reach a deeper communion with God and with each other, free of pretense or distraction. That is why Cardinal Newman’s motto, Cor ad Cor Loquitur, breathes of a peculiarly Oratorian spirit. Heart truly can speak to heart when both are freed by humility. The remarkable life of St. Philip Neri is testament to that truth.

But where did St. Philip learn to emulate the humility of the Infant Christ? I think we can infer two chief sources.

It is the distinctive mark of the Oratory to discourse daily upon the Word of God in a free and familiar manner. Indeed, the very first exercises of the Oratory at San Girolamo always took the reading and discussion of Scripture as their central object. It stands to reason that St. Philip’s profound engagement with the Gospels would have shaped his sense of Christ’s own humility.

But perhaps a more important source can be glimpsed in St. Philip’s intensely Eucharistic life. Surely St. Philip would have entered into the mystery of Christ’s birth precisely as he encountered Him in the Mass. The Eucharistic silence of the Host is but an echo of the silence Christ kept that first Christmas night. God’s hiddenness upon the altar comes from the obscurity in which He enmantled himself on that first night of His human life.

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Icon of The Inexhaustible Chalice. (Source)

Christmas is here, reminding us of God’s wondrous love. But that love calls us to contemplation as well as jubilation. Amidst the lessons and carols, amidst the bells and laughter, amidst the exuberance of family conversations, let us recall the silence of the Holy Infant. He was willing to cloak his Godhead for us. That love of being unknown seems utterly foreign to us, proud and vain as we are. So let this Christmastide see our entry into the mystery of God’s humility. Perhaps St. Philip Neri can help us find what we have missed.