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.

And After the Fire

the-morning-after-the-deluge

“The Morning After the Deluge,” J.M.W. Turner, c. 1843. (Source).

I am still shocked and furious about the events of the last few days. Fascists of various sorts have descended upon Charlottesville, Virginiaa town I loved and called home for four years—and caused immense pain for the entire community. One woman, a Wobbly protester, died at the hands of a Neo-Nazi who rammed his car into a crowded alley. I had friends in the counter-protest. I had friends who feared for their lives. And all I could do was watch and pray. The Rosary, the Imprecatory Psalms, Invocations to St. Michael. But how I wish I could have done so much more.

I was following the news across Facebook, CNN television, and Twitter. I observed mixed responses. Some, even among baptized Catholics, sympathize with the Alt-Right fascists. They point the finger of blame at Antifa, the several Socialists who showed up in counterprotest, the Media, and Black Lives Matter activists. Likewise, some Christians equivocated. They were happy to condemn the Alt-Right briefly, while also complaining at length about how the Media wasn’t focusing on Antifa, or the Police didn’t do enough, or, incredibly, how all of this is really just the fault of the Democratic Party (here’s looking at you, John Zmirak and Dinesh D’Souza). Then, there were those brave Catholics like Chad Pecknold, Robert George, and Bishop Barron who condemned white supremacy and racism outright. And they received backlashshameful!from those who should know better.

But I haven’t lost hope.

The Liturgical Providence of God is so calibrated to our salvation that we receive the graces we need at precisely the moment we need them, even when we could never have anticipated needing them in the first place. It works even through a deficient calendar, such as we have in the Novus Ordo. For today, we read and hear about a great many disruptions and turbulent tumults. We turn first to the Prophet Elijah at Sinai where, having cast down fire from heaven upon the Prophets of Baal, he hides and waits for the Lord to speak.

At the mountain of God, Horeb,
Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter.
Then the LORD said to him,
“Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
the LORD will be passing by.”
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.

1 Kgs 19:9a, 11-13a

The wind rises high all about Elijah; it howls and screams like the very demons of Hell. It rushes up the mountain like the chariots of the wicked King who sought the prophet’s life. But the Lord was not in the wind.

The earthquake causes the whole mountain to tremble. Rocks shake as if they are about to be torn asunder by invisible hands. The trees seem to dance in an unholy rhythm, threaten to crack and topple over. But the Lord was not in the earthquake.

The fire courses across the plain and up the slopes, hungrily devouring the short desert grasses that line the path to Horeb’s cave. The smoke fills the air; the sweltering heat traps Elijah, and threatens to make a furnace of his narrow cell. But the Lord was not in the fire.

The Lord came, instead, in a “tiny whispering sound” that followed all that tumult and trial. The frightful violence of nature may have been sublime, and it may have sorely threatened Elijah. But it was empty. God does not dwell in the frenzy of the wind, the earthquake, and the fire. He comes in peace, and He meets His servant in peace.

This week’s Psalm takes up the same theme.

R. (8) Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
I will hear what God proclaims;
the LORD — for he proclaims peace.
Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him,
glory dwelling in our land.
R. Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
and justice shall look down from heaven.
R. Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
The LORD himself will give his benefits;
our land shall yield its increase.
Justice shall walk before him,
and prepare the way of his steps.
R. Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.

Ps 85:9, 10, 11-12, 13-14

The peace and salvation of God is near to those who fear Him. A great mystery hovers within these lines: “Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss. Truth shall spring out of the earth, and justice shall look down from heaven.”

Justice. Peace. Those are words that scare a lot of us traditionalists. After all, haven’t so many abuses of doctrine and the liturgy occurred precisely in the name of “social justice?” Haven’t whole orders been gutted by their worldly capitulation to liberal standards of “social justice” work? And aren’t the proverbial “Social Justice Warriors” the very people who most oppose the Church’s teachings on abortion, marriage, gender, and so many other issues?

All of these criticisms are valid. But they are not complete. Justice is a cardinal virtue. To quote one of the better Anglican principles, “The abuse of a thing doth not take away the good use of it.” Consider what the Psalm teaches us of God’s Justice. Here is a picture of the Last and Eternal Day, when the New Heavens and the Earth will united at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. But we also find a practical insight for the here and now. When we read, “Justice shall walk before him, and prepare the way of his steps,” we recognize in this a prophecy of Christ. Our Lord, whose way was prepared by St. John the Baptist (that man so like an icon of Justice), is never far from Justice. The wind and earthquake and fire of injustice will one day yield to the peace of Christ. But in the meantime, we must do what we can to realize that justice in our own communities. Indeed, in our own hearts.

This can only begin when we faithfully repair to the sacrament of penance, confessing our sins with compunction, and seek to live always as Christ would have us. For some, this may mean abandoning deep bigotries like white supremacy or a hatred of the poor. It will be difficult for those caught in such snares to relinquish their demonic ideologies, so we must pray for them. But is there anyone among us who does not cherish some prejudice, some little parasite of pride, some vice that blinds us to the manifold ways we are complicit in the oppression of our brethren? Even I am no saint in this respect, and I pray that God’s mercy might change me to better reflect His love for all people.

For some, direct action may be the right course. I am not an activist. I started this essay confessing that I wish I could have done more to help those standing against white supremacists yesterday. Yet I recognize that I have a temperamental aversion to any kind of on-the-ground activism. The task of marching, picketing, and chanting songs of justice may be what some are called to. Dorothy Day provides a wonderful Catholic example of this kind of work.

And there are other strategies, which theologians and activists have pursued for years, that aim at incarnating Justice. It would be redundant to attempt any kind of review here. But no matter how we go about the task of Justice, we musn’t lose hope. Let us hear the commiserating words of St. Paul to the Romans:

Brothers and sisters:
I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie;
my conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness
that I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart.
For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ
for the sake of my own people,
my kindred according to the flesh.
They are Israelites;
theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants,
the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;
theirs the patriarchs, and from them,
according to the flesh, is the Christ,
who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Rom 9:1-5

Even amidst the anguish we feel for our brethren, we must not lose sight of the Holy Face triumphant. Nor must we forget that Justice is not itself the highest good. God is. With these two truths in mind, we turn to the Gospel.

After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat
and precede him to the other side,
while he dismissed the crowds.
After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.
When it was evening he was there alone.
Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore,
was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.
During the fourth watch of the night,
he came toward them walking on the sea.
When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified.
“It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear.
At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter said to him in reply,
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
He said, “Come.”
Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus.
But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened;
and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter,
and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
After they got into the boat, the wind died down.
Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying,
“Truly, you are the Son of God.”

Mt 14:22-33

We learn from the Psalm that “Justice shall walk before him, and prepare the way of his steps.” So Our Lord sends forth His Apostles, His Church, to “precede him to the other side” of the sea. The Church mystically incarnates Justice at every Mass. And it can only hope to sustain Justice, a Cardinal Virtue, with Faith. For when Peter, Prince of the Apostles, goes out of the boat to walk towards His Lord, he only sinks when he loses his Faith in fear.

But all is not lost. Christ comes through the storm and shows that He is master of it. He walks on water. No tempest can withstand Him, just as no wind, earthquake, fire, flood, protest, or violence of this world can drown out His voice. No slogan of oppression, no act of terrorism, no brawl in the summer streets can overcome the peace that Christ alone brings in and to and through His Church.

I hope that my friends in Charlottesville will take heart. The last few days have been tempestuous, to say the least. But Christ will conquer the waves of this world. Have faith, and He will grant us both justice and peace.

Remember Hamburg

Hamburg_cartoon

Reaction of the Northern press to the Hamburg Massacre. (Source).

One of the great tragedies of Reconstruction was the Hamburg Massacre, committed 141 years ago today. Never heard of it? Neither had I prior to last summer. That was when I saw a temporary exhibit at the Aiken County History Museum, in Aiken, South Carolina. The story shocked me. I reproduce for you here a summary from BlackPast.org.

On July 8, 1876, the small town of Hamburg, South Carolina erupted in violence as the community’s African American militia clashed with whites from the surrounding rural area.  Hamburg was a small all-black community across the river from Augusta, Georgia.   Like many African American communities in South Carolina, it was solidly Republican and with the GOP in charge in Columbia, some of its men were members of the South Carolina National Guard (the Militia).

On July 4, two white farmers from surrounding Edgefield County, Thomas Butler and Henry Getzen, attempted to drive a carriage through the town along the main road, but were obstructed by the all-black Militia which was engaged in a military exercise.  Although the farmers got through the military formation after an initial argument, racial tensions remained high.

Two days later Butler and Getzen brought a formal complaint of obstruction of a public road before the local court in Hamburg.  The case was postponed until July 8.  By that point Matthew C. Butler, an Edgefield attorney, appeared as the farmer’s counsel.  Butler demanded that the Hamburg militia company be disbanded although that action had no direct connection to the complaint.

By this point hundreds of armed white men, including many who were members of various rifle clubs, descended upon the small black community.  Militia members retreated to a stone warehouse which they used as their armory.

Hamburg_Massacre1

A map of the events. (Source).

Sometime during the afternoon a battle ensued. Surrounded and outnumbered, twenty-five militiamen and fifteen Hamburg residents fought back from the armory. By mid afternoon a white attacker and a militiaman lay dead, and a few more members of the militia were wounded. A cannon was brought over from nearby Augusta and aimed at the armory. As cannon fire blew a hole in the armory, some black militiamen and Hamburg’s Town Marshal, James Cook, attempted to flee. Cook was shot and killed.

The rest of the militiamen and towns people were captured in the armory.  Four of the militiamen were brought out and immediately executed by the white mob. The rest were allowed to escape, though as soon as they began to flee, the whites trained their guns on the escaping men, shooting as many as possible.

Seven men died that afternoon. Six were black militiamen or civilians and one was a white farmer killed in the attack on the armory.

You can read the official report here. The names of the six black men who died are Allen Attaway, Jim Cook, Albert Myniart, Nelder Parker, Moses Parks, David Phillips, and Hampton Stephens.

HamburgMap

The town of Hamburg, SC. It was situated immediately across the river from Augusta, GA. (Source)

The massacre sparked other troubles throughout the state. Benjamin Tillman, a particularly vitriolic racist, led a pack of Red Shirts that rioted in nearby Ellenton. To quote Wikipedia, “The official record of Deputy US Marshalls indicated between 25 and 30 black men were killed. A New York Times reporter in an article stated as many as 100 blacks were killed in the conflicts, which extended to September 21, with several whites wounded.”

The violence centered on the political tensions. Remember, this was 1876—an election year. Democrats were desperate to take back political control throughout the South. They launched a major campaign of fraud and intimidation to depress the numbers of black voters. The murders at Hamburg, Ellenton, and elsewhere helped sweep Democrat and ex-Confederate general Wade Hampton III to the governor’s office. He went on to “redeem” South Carolina, instituting harsh new laws designed to strictly curtail the rights of the freemen. Tillman would later cite his experience in speeches before the U.S. Senate, stump addresses during his own gubernatorial campaign in 1890, and even a 1909 Red Shirt reunion. On that last occasion, “Pitchfork Ben” declared that “The leading white men of Edgefield” had determined “to seize the opportunity that the Negroes might offer them to provoke a riot and teach the Negroes a lesson.” Tillman claimed that the Hamburg Massacre was a way that “the whites demonstrate[d] their superiority by killing as many of them as possible.” Tillman told his audience,

The purpose of our visit to Hamburg was to strike terror, and the next morning (Sunday) when the negroes who had fled to the swamp returned to the town (some of them never did return, but kept on going) the ghastly sight which met their gaze of seven dead negroes lying stark and stiff, certainly had its effect…It was now after midnight, and the moon high in the heavens looked down peacefully on the deserted town and dead negroes, whose lives had been offered up as a sacrifice to the fanatical teachings and fiendish hate of those who sought to substitute the rule of the African for that of the Caucasian in South Carolina. (Source).

bentillman

Senator and Governor Benjamin “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, one of the most important white supremacists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Source)

The town of Hamburg eventually washed away in a 1927 flood, with most of the surviving residents relocating to North Augusta. In that city stands a monument to Thomas McKie Meriwether, the only white man who died in the “battle.” It’s a graceful and dignified obelisk that proclaims Meriweather a “young hero” who “gave his life that the civilization builded by his fathers might be preserved for their children’s children unimpaired” and “exemplified the highest ideal of Anglo-Saxon civilization.” The monument breathlessly declares that “By his death he assured to the children of his beloved land the supremacy of that ideal” (Source). No memorial was erected to the six black men killed in the massacre until March of 2016. Their names share a simple stone with Meriwether’s.

These problematic memorials remind me of another controversy very much alive today…and by today, I do truly mean today, July the 8th. Later this afternoon, a collection of white supremacists, fascists, and malcontents will assemble at Lee Park in Charlottesville to protest the removal of the general’s statue. The Washington Post reports that the Ku Klux Klan will be involved and armed. Richard Spencer is headlining the event, but other minor and stranger figures of the Alt-Right are also scheduled to appear (including Augustus Sol InvictusSatanist, Neo-Nazi, ex-Senatorial candidate for the Libertarian Party, and certified Florida Man). The rally, billed as “Unite the Right,” proves a point I have said before and must, sadly, say again; a conservatism that is not anti-racist is not worth defending.

While I don’t have a very strong opinion on the statue’s removal, I do that know that some of my friends will be counter-protesting. I pray that they stay safe. I pray that the forces of violence and oppression will be overcome by the powers of love and justice. And I pray that the horrible example of Hamburg will never be forgottenor repeated.

UPDATE: I mistakenly conflated two different fascist rallies (never thought I’d have to say that). The one on Saturday was just various Klan groups. Photos are all over UVA student and Charlottesville social media. The “Unite the Right” rally is taking place in early August. God deliver us from the Alt-Right.