Our Lady and a “Prosperous New Year”

You could say that the reforms after Vatican II made for a kind of “remedial liturgy.”  One of the basic principles was that the meaning of the liturgy should be accessible to those who are faithful but lack a deep symbolic formation.

The Liturgy of the Hours, for example, was simplified, and the hardest verses were removed from the Hail Mary ImagePsalms.  For example, they removed from Psalm 110, which we have recited every Evening of the Christmas octave, verse 6: “He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead and crushing the rulers of the whole earth.”  It’s not that this verse is wrong, once you know how to read the spiritual meaning of the Psalms.  It’s just that it’s not the best way to introduce people to the liturgy.

(Some other time perhaps I’ll explain how necessary I think this “remedial liturgy” is.)

So too, the Marian liturgies are greatly simplified.  It can be annoying.  The tradition has some awesome Biblical symbolism for Mary.  (For example, Sirach 24:9-18, in the old Little Office.)  Now the readings are all on the literal level – and since Mary (perhaps by her choice) was hidden in Scripture, that means we don’t get much.

Even the feasts themselves are simplified.  The octave of Christmas, January 1, used to be the feast of the Circumcision (which the people of the Old Testament do on the eighth day after birth), but in the remedial liturgy, that’s simplified to just, “Mary, Mother of God.”  Forget the details, focus on the big stuff.  And the readings for the feast are strangely generic.


The first reading is the blessing of Aaron: “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you, the Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace.”  There’s nothing Marian, on the literal or symbolic levels, in this first reading for Mary’s main feast day.  It’s a lovely blessing for the New Year, but not specifically Marian.

And yet the reading is strangely insightful about Mary.

A strange parallel, from my December reading: One of St. John Paul II’s synods was on Confession.  Out of that synod came his post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia.  Now, on first glance, that document is all over the place.  Here we’re supposed to be talking about the sacrament of Confession, and instead JPII gives us musings on world peace, human rights, terrorism, racial discrimination, and “an unfair distribution of the world’s resources.”  Confession doesn’t show up until the last of seven chapters.  Was he avoiding the subject?  Getting distracted?  (Imagine if Pope Francis did that!)

Well, of course JPII knew what he was doing.  He was showing what Confession is really about.  It’s not about waving a magic wand.  It’s not about a ticket out of earthly responsibility.  To the contrary, it’s about how wildly practical God’s grace is, how the sacraments work to restore our humanity, to restore society, to bring about “reconciliation.”

To understand and appreciate grace, we have to understand and appreciate the natural order that it heals and elevates.


So too with Mary.  Yes, the Circumcision is significant.  But if we get lost in the details, we can come up with a Mary who is marginal, a Mary who is just a matter of theological obscurity, a Mary who has nothing to do with our real lives – and a God who has nothing to do with our real lives.

But Mary is not a theological obscurity.  Like Confession, she has everything to do with the true meaning of a happy new year, and even the true meaning of politics.  We can’t let our faith become a fun little dress up game we play in Church.  Mary is everything.


And so in our first reading, Mary reveals the true Happy New Year: “May the Lord bless you and keep you, let his face shine upoin you, look upon you kindly and give you peace.”

our lady of milleniumIn our second reading, Mary is the transition from the Law – a law that, as a faithful Jewish girl, she lived to the hilt – to the discovery of God as Father.  She looked on her Son and knew, as no one had ever known before, God as Father.

And in our Gospel, Mary is inseparably there when we discover Christ himself, as she was for the shepherds, who “went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph and the infant.”  With Mary, with the shepherds, may we “keep all these things, reflecting on them in our hearts,” dwelling in the amazement of the Word made flesh.

(And let us go, too, to his very human circumcision, which also makes it into our Gospel reading.)

Mary isn’t a matter of obscure details.  Mary is about the heart of the Gospel.  Mary is everything.

How do you keep your faith – and your devotion to Mary – from becoming marginal to your real desires for the New Year?

At Christmas He Appears

What are we celebrating on Christmas?  What happened on that day?

swaddlingOn a certain level, nothing.  As we rightly point out when talking about abortion, nothing metaphysical happens at birth.  The day before and the day after, the child is the same.  Life begins at conception – and the great metaphysical moment for Christians is the Annunciation, not the Nativitiy.  March 25 is the feast of the Incarnation.  That’s when he empties himself and takes the form of a slave.

Nor does Christ do anything great on Christmas.  His great actions are still thirty years away.  His greatest action is on the Cross, another mystery of March.

But something great does happen at birth: the mother sees her child.  Birth is no small moment for ordinary mothers, including the mothers we counsel about abortion.  And the birth of Christ is no small moment for Our Lady and the Church of which she is the first member.  She sees him.


The Liturgy for Christmas is full of this theme.  This year (for various reasons – Christmas is all about interrupted plans) my family attended the noon Mass – there are, you know, different readings for Christmas Eve evening, midnight, “dawn,” and “during the day,” so that we can read about the angels, the shepherds, and the Prologue of John, and remember that before midnight, Christ is not yet born.

At the daytime Mass, the reading from Isaiah begins, “how beautiful,” talks about him “announcing good news,” and says, “they see directly.”   The reading from the beginning of Hebrews compares Jesus to the angels, but sets the tone for the rest of that letter by saying, “he has spoken to us through the Son.”  And though the Prologue of John talks about who Jesus is (the Incarnation, a mystery of March), it concludes, “No one has ever seen God.  The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him.”

Like every birth, Christmas is about the revelation of the child, the appearance of the mystery that was hidden in the mother’s womb.  And so too the readings tell of hearing him speak: though the child does not speak, that first look at him on Christmas reminds us how fortunate we are to have a God who is no longer hidden, but revealed, a God who speaks to us.

So too at midnight, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9), “the grace of God has appeared” (Titus 2), and the angels “proclaim to you good news . . . and this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant” (Luke 2).   And at dawn,  “The Lord proclaims . . . say to daughter Zion, your savior comes” (Is 62), “the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared” (Titus 3), and “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see” (Luke 2).

Seeing, joined with hearing the good news: revelation.


I have been thinking this Advent about the Canticle of Simeon, which we pray every night in Night Prayer:

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, according to your word,

For my own eyes have the seen the salvation,

which you have prepared in the sight of every people

A light to reveal you to the nations

And the glory of your people Israel.

I am not like Simeon.  Simeon “goes in peace” because he was an old man, “being instructed by the Holy Spirit, he was not to see death before he would see the Christ of the Lord.”  Simeon is ready to die – but surely I am not?

And Simeon’s “own eyes have seen”: Jesus appears before him.  I have not seen.

But I have heard, in Scripture, and I have touched, in the Sacraments.  (John says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled – 1 John 1:1.)

At Christmas I am reminded how close Jesus has come, so close that we could see him, touch him, hear him.  Like Simeon before the Presentation, I still long to see him face to face.  But he is not altogether hidden, and every day I rejoice at how much I have seen, in the Word and Sacraments of his Church, and so I long to see him fully.

And so I too can go in peace, can even contemplate, as we do throughout Night Prayer, leaving this life behind.  Because we have seen him, and we go to see him, and that is all that matters.

After this exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb. Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_Project

And we can hope already to be like Stephen, “full of the Holy Spirit, looking up intently into Heaven, he saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  And he said, Behold, I see.”


How different is your life because Jesus because you have heard the Word of Jesus?  What difference does it make that you have not yet seen his face?



Meek and Mild: Preparing the Way

caravaggio nativityI haven’t gotten to write much this Advent, and now I’m going to write about dealing with anger.  Please don’t draw any connections – it’s just been a busy time.

Advent is a time of preparation, a reminder that our whole life is preparation for the coming of Christ.  We prepare for our annual celebration of his first coming: by decorating and making cookies, by prayer and perhaps some fasting, by meditating on the mystery we will celebrate in the busy whirl that is Christmas.

We recall, perhaps in the Jesse tree, certainly in the readings from Isaiah and about John the Baptist and Mary, how through all of history God prepared for that first coming.

And we remind ourselves, by our annual observance, that our whole life is a preparation for his final coming, when at last we too shall meet Jesus face to face.  Every time we prepare for communion, we prepare for that ultimate communion, on our last day and on the Last Day.


A voice is calling,

“Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness;

Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.


“Let every valley be lifted up,

And every mountain and hill be made low;

And let the rough ground become a plain,

And the rugged terrain a broad valley;


Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed,

And all flesh will see it together;

For the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 40).


But a hymn reminds us, “make straight the way for God within.”

All the external preparations point to our internal.  How do we prepare the way within?


This Advent I’ve been thinking about meekness.  I’ve been thinking about the beatitudes in general for a couple years.  A traditional reading notices three kinds:

The first three are about emptying ourselves of obstacles (the purgative way):

Poverty of spirit



The next two are about discovering who God is (the illuminative way):



And the next two (or three) are about becoming one with him (the unitive way):

Pure in heart (who see God)

Peacemakers (called children of God)

(Those who are persecuted for him)

The illuminative way prepares the way for God within – but I’m thinking now especially of clearing the path.  Like Mary, we have to become poor with him, to set aside all our earthly distractions.  We have to weep with him, setting aside our worldly pleasures and embracing the pain of a fallen world, refusing to flee or cover them up.  And we have to become meek with him.


I’m thinking about meekness partly because I recently, finally, discovered Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of meekness.

One way to understand the beatitudes is by their rewards.  Blessed are the meek | for they shall inherit the earth.  What are the meek?  Those who inherit: those who don’t fight for riches, but receive everything from their Father.

Still, what does meekness mean?  Thomas points out that Aristotle, that great observer of humanity, discuses the same word used in the Greek text of Matthew: praüs.  Aristotle says (in IV Ethics) that   praüs, meekness, is moderation of our anger.  Thomas sees it as a kind of self-restraint: just as we have to control our desire for food and alcohol and sex, so too our anger.

We can go a step further: clemency is self-restraint in regard to punishment.  It is closely related to meekness, but it’s worth noting the difference.  Clemency is about our external actions: we need to control ourselves when it comes to acting on our anger.  But meekness isn’t just about lashing out.  It’s about our interior life.  It’s the virtue that moderates our anger itself.

Mercy, we should note, goes a step further: mercy is the desire to help another person in distress.  Clemency just doesn’t hurt him; meekness doesn’t feel angry with him; but mercy goes out to help him.

our lady of millenium


And meekness too is a beatitude, a way of clearing the paths for God to enter into our hearts.  I have been pondering Mary’s meekness in the beatitudes.  Meekness isn’t everything, but Mary has room in her heart because she is not full of anger, even as they scourge her beloved.

How do we cultivate this meekness?  It’s interesting that it’s a virtue, not an action.  These days we talk a lot about forgiveness, but two problems.  First, forgiveness is darned hard to do.  We can say the words, even repeat them internally – but have we really let go of our anger?  Second, it’s interesting that forgiveness isn’t in the Summa.  Thomas doesn’t think it’s the most helpful category.  I think he might be right.

Meekness is a virtue: not a single act, like forgiveness, but a way of being.  Virtues are cultivated by practice, by continually restraining our anger – just as you cultivate sobriety by not getting drunk, over and over again.

Meekness is also a fruit of the Spirit, in Galatians 5.  (In English, this spot in the list is “humility,” which is of course even greater.  But in the Greek and Latin of Galatians, and in the Latin Catechism, it’s meekness.  Letting go of our anger, of course, has a lot to do with letting go of our pride: meekness and humility go hand in hand.)

How do we cultivate meekness?  By not acting on our anger.  And by asking the Holy Spirit to pour his fruits and his gifts into our hearts – by asking, that is, Jesus to take our heart and make it like unto his, by begging Mary, full of grace, to pray for us sinners, that we may be holy as she is, including meek and mild as she is, and so make room in the inn.

our lady of vladimir

How does anger keep Jesus out of your heart?  What do you do about it?


Second Sunday: Come O Wisdom from on High

I have been feeling down.  In my country there is Trump, in the Church there is Cardinal Burke.  In both cases, I am distressed at the opinions being voiced, but I am even more distressed at the bitter conflict, the inability for people to see eye to eye.  Jesus prayed that they may be one, but the world is full of such bitter division.

swaddlingI feel the darkness of December.  But Christ comes in the bleak midwinter, a little child, a tiny flame in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  The darkness is our reminder to look for the dawn from on high.


Our first reading this Sunday is a long one from Isaiah.  We might know it best for the animal imagery: “the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,” etc.  There is an image of peace.

The tradition knows the reading better for its first part: “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,” etc.  Here are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.  (The ancient Greek translation finds different shades of meaning in the two lines about “fear of the Lord,” and thus the Latin tradition discovers a gift of “pietas,” or reverence for the Father.)

The key is in the union of these two themes: the wisdom on high is the way – the only way – to peace.

After it tells of the gifts that will rest on the Messiah – and on all of us who are in Christ – it tells of what kind of ruler he will be: “Not by appearance shall he judge . . . but he shall judge the poor with justice . . . . He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth. . . . Justice shall be the band around his waist.”

Christ the King, the king of kings and the only one who can make kings good, will bring peace because he will see rightly.  Only the wisdom from on high can make peace.

The animal imagery that follows gives symbols of nations.  We need not have particular nations in mind.  The point is, “the root of Jesse” – that is, Jesus, who is not only the son of David, but the source of David – will be “set up as a signal for the nations.”  All nations shall come streaming to Jerusalem, to be ruled by the one Good King.

Nations which could never be at peace – wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, calf and young lion, cow and bear – will be at peace, will be one, when Christ is King, when all are ruled by the wisdom from on high.


The reading from Romans teaches the same thing in a different way.  “Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction,” it says, and, “Christ became a minister of the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness.”  The New Testament is confirming the Old Testament, and thus making a deeper point about the Bible as a whole: “by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

By faith we will live – faith in God’s word, faith in the wisdom of Jesus.  And when we live by God’s word, we will, “Welcome one another, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  In his wisdom is our peace.


The Gospel pushes us deeper into the heart of that wisdom.  As we prepare the way for Christmas, we have John the Baptist preparing the way by crying out, “Prepare the way!”

Again, the New Testament quotes the Old (“a voice of one crying out the desert” is Matthew quoting Isaiah), and the Old points to the new: “It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken.”

Hail Mary ImageGod speaks.  He is not silent.  In Scripture we can hear his voice, and it transforms us.

There are two parts of the message.  First is John’s call to repentance.  It is a hard call: he calls those who think they are righteous “you brood of vipers,” and warns that we cannot rest on our merits, calling ourselves children of Abraham as if that excuses our failure to repent.

But second, John points to the source of that repentance.  To be baptized by John is only to embrace his message that we must change.  But he tells of one coming after him, who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Jesus is coming.  He speaks to us, and his word transforms us.  Through the sacraments, he acts on us, and gives us natural hearts, loving hearts, in place of his stony heart.

In the darkness of this December, this bleak midwinter of our world, we look to the dawn from on high, to the wisdom who alone can be our peace.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Do you feel the despair of human wisdom?  How do you look to Christ as our only Savior?