Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday

In 1969, I read an article by some liturgical expert claiming that the Palm Sunday procession no longer sufficiently corresponded to our contemporary mentality and so should be eliminated. After my initial shock, I remember laughing out loud, for I had just a few days earlier attended the Ticket-Tape Parade on Broadway for the Apollo astronauts. Based on that celebration, I concluded, the Palm Sunday procession still resonated just fine with contemporary sensibility!  I suspect no one would seriously still dare doubt the perennial and persistent popularity of Palm Sunday. Earlier this week, I breathed my annual sigh of relief as our order of palms promptly arrived in time. It is hard to imagine just what kind of calamity would cause Palm Sunday to dawn without palms the necessary supply of palms, but it is easy to imagine just what a calamity that would be!

The great 20th-century liturgical writer Pius Parsch called Palm Sunday "the golden gateway leading to the holy mysteries of Easter."  The Palm Sunday service is certainly among the Church’s most impressive annual observances, and it has always been particularly popular. Its especially popular features (the palms and the procession) illustrate the popularizing influence of medieval Gallican liturgical innovations on the old Roman Rite. The 20th-century liturgical reforms of Holy Week (first in 1955, then as part of the overall transformation of the Missal in 1969) always seemed to be trying to highlight the Roman rather than Gallican components of Palm Sunday. They even changed its name, but to no avail. Practically everyone still calls it by its unreformed name, Palm Sunday.

Palms are blessed today to commemorate Christ’s messianic entry into Jerusalem in preparation for Passover. While that triumphal entry may have initially resembled a royal cavalcade, the events of what we now call “Holy Week” would reveal how different Christ’s messianic kingship is from our worldly expectations. The blessed palms we receive today evoke not just the historical memory of an event in Jesus’ earthly life, but his entire Passion and the new Passover which we are now invited to celebrate with Christ, our Risen Lord. Having received the blessed palms and held them high during the procession that begins today’s Mass, we take them home and keep them throughout the year as witnesses to our faith in Christ’s kingship and our participation in his Passion and Resurrection.

In his 2011 Holy Week book, Pope Benedict XVI said that the early Church rightly read the Palm Sunday story "as an anticipation of what she does in her liturgy." For the early Church, Pope Benedict continued, "'Palm Sunday' was not a thing of the past. Just as the Lord entered the Holy City that day on a donkey, so too the Church saw him coming again and again in the humble form of bread and wine."

Saturday, April 12, 2014

As the Sad Centennial Approaches

It is seldom that I have occasion to quote George Weigel, but this is one. The right-leaning, but intellectually serious journal First Things' May issue includes an article by him, "The Great War Revisted," that is well worth reading in this centennial year of the start of World War I, known to its shell-shocked contemporaries as "the Great War."

Of the greatness of that war, there can no doubt - some 20 million dead, an equal or greater number wounded, to which must also be added (as Weigel wisely recognizes) the casualties of the 1918 influenza pandemic the spread of which the war certainly facilitated. It was great also in the scope of its moral descent into depravity. Twice, Weigel quotes Churchill in this regard: "Neither peoples nor rulers drew the line at any deed which they thought could help them to win" and "Every outrage against humanity or international law was repaid by reprisals often on a grander scale and longer duration." And, of course, it was surpassingly great in the extent and long-lastingness of its consequences. For Weigel, the world that war created only "ended when one of the Great War's more consequential by-products, the Soviet Union, disintegrated in August 1991." Personally, I would date the end of our modern Hundred Years' War no earlier than the resolution later in the 1990s of the Serbian-centered conflicts among the peoples formerly forced to coexist in Yugoslavia (itself a consequence of World War I and of the extreme Serbian nationalism that provoked that war in the first place). Recent events in the Ukraine, however, have convinced me that even that late end-date may have been premature. For the current conflict in and around Ukraine also has its roots in the Great War's witless destruction of the Hapsburg and Romanov empires.

Like everyone else, Weigel considers the causes of the war. But his greater contribution, I believe, lies in his raising the less common - but ultimately more important and more revealing - question: "Why did the Great War continue?" In other words, "Why, at the end of 1914, when the military situation had ossified on both the western and eastern fronts, did Europe find it impossible to call a halt?" Allowing a local Balkan crisis (one of many that had disturbed that region) to escalate into a Europe-wide war was surely folly - idiocy even. But to allow it continue after the initial campaigns had led to an impasse  - an impasse that would continue at increasing human cost until 1917 on the eastern front and until the fall of 1918 on the western front - remains the amazing puzzle of the war.

Here Weigel invokes familiar and frequent ideological foes. But the fact that they are familiar and frequently invoked does not diminish the relevance of his analysis. Underlying the peace, prosperity, and apparent contentment of Edwardian Europe, Weigel unearths  a complex of "distorted ideas and virulent passions." Among them, Weigel argues, were Social Darwinism, Nietzschean Promethean irrationalism, xenophobic ideas about nations and races, a certain sense of historical fatalism, and what 40 years ago Owen Chadwick labeled the 19th-century's "secularization of the European mind." Weigel focuses in especially on the latter (which in a sense, I think, sums up and incorporates all the others) as having eroded "any sense of rules or restraint in world politics or the conduct of war."

As a counter-point to the received modern wisdom which sees the rise of modern forms of political authority as an historical alternative to the destructive religious warfare which preceded, Weigel argues that  it has been "the erosion of biblically informed concepts of the human person, human communities, human origins, and human destiny" which "created a European moral-cultural environment in which politics was no longer bound and constrained by a higher authority operative in the minds and consciences of leaders and populations." 

How to respond - morally, culturally, and politically - to this overwhelming challenge is anything but obvious, and would likely get us into the territory of contemporary politics where many (myself included) might quickly part company with Weigel on any number of particular proposals. But, I think, his analysis of the spiritual causes of our contemporary hundred years' malaise is a legitimate foundation for future moral, cultural, and political deliberation.

Last week, on the 25th anniversary of her state funeral in Vienna, I watched the YouTube videos of the Austrian coverage of the Empress Zita's funeral and burial. On one level, of course, the whole event was an exercise in imperial nostalgia (something Vienna is naturally quite good at). But, beyond nostalgia and all that, it offered an opportunity for ritualized reflection on the 20th-century tragedy that began in 1914. One particularly virulent phase of that - the Cold War - was dramatically coming to an end in 1989, even as Zita was being laid to rest among previous Kaisern and Kaiserinen with all the traditional Hapsburg ceremonial. But the corrosive ideas which Weigel highlighted as having animated secular modernity continue even now to erode the bases of social life and continue to pose novel challenges which cannot be easily evaded or escaped. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Stabat Mater

The final Friday of Lent means our Lenten series of weekly Friday evening parish “Fish Fry and Stations of the Cross” is also quickly coming to its end. (We’ll celebrate the Stations of the Cross  at noon on Good Friday, but without fish!)

For many, surely one of the most memorable and traditional features of the Lenten Stations is the singing of verses of the Stabat Mater during the procession from station to station. There is, of course, no actual requirement to sing the Stabat Mater; but for many the Stations just would not be same without it. The popular, plain chant tune, to which it is typically sung, by its familiarity certainly lends itself to active participation even when the physical circumstances of the place preclude everybody actually joining in the walk from station to station. If the popular chant tune tends toward the lugubrious (at least in the way it is often performed) that too somewhat adds to the ambience and may be one of the hymn’s additional assets. And, well sung, it certainly captures the spirit of Passiontide particularly well, using our natural human sympathy for the Sorrowful Mother to guide us through the deep mystery of Christ's passion.

The actual hymn itself (attributed to the Franciscan Jacopone da Todi) dates back to the 13th century. The great 20th-century liturgical author Pius Parsch called it "one of the finest religious poems from the Middle Ages." Its liturgical function was to serve as a Sequence, sung or said at Mass on the feast of the Seven Dolors of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which traditionally was celebrated on this day – the Friday before Palm Sunday. (The Lenten feast of the Seven Dolors was reduced to a commemoration in 1961 and eliminated entirely in the 1969 Missal, but its duplicate feast of the Seven Sorrows on the September 15 still survives, renamed Our Lady of Sorrows.) Meanwhile, the Stabat Mater  has likewise managed to survive. Only a few sequences, the best of the lot, survived the liturgical pruning of the Roman Rite in the post-Tridentine liturgical reform that led to the 1570 Roman Missal. Only five in fact made that cut – Victimae Paschali at Easter, Veni, Sancte Spiritus at Pentecost. Lauda, Sion at Corpus Christi, Dies Irae at Requiem Masses, and Stabat Mater – all true spiritual, poetic, and musical masterpieces. (All but the Dies Irae are still in the Missal, although their frequency of use has been reduced considerably.)

The Stabat Mater has been set to music by many famous composers – among them Palestrina, Pergolesi, Scarlatti, Verdi, Vialdi, Rossini, and Dvořák. And, of course, there is that haunting and powerful plain chant melody - for a beautiful example of which, go to:

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Prisoners of History

150 years ago today, a Hapsburg Archduke, Erzherzog Maximilian von Oesterreich (Archduke Maximilian of Austria, 1832-1867), a brother of Austrian Kaiser Franz Josef I (1830-1916), became Emperor of Mexico, with the backing of France's Emperor Napoleon III. Napoleon's Mexican adventure and Maximilian's empire lasted less than three years and ended tragically with Maximilian's execution by Mexican rebels.

One can debate the merits and the faults of Maximilian's ill-fated empire. It does, however, make for a good historical case study. It is surely worth wondering whether Maximilian's regime might have provided Mexico with better governance than his late 19th-century replacements did - governance that might have obviated the 20th-century bloodbath that was the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath. Also, it seems reasonable to conjecture that a Hapsburg Mexico with strong ties to a European Empire might have been better able to hold its own vis-à-vis the influence of the United States. (Presumably that was one reason for the U.S.'s strong opposition to Maximilian!) Certainly, being part of the British Empire helped our neighbor to the north maintain its distinct identity vis-à-vis its increasingly powerful southern neighbor. One can only speculate how differently the relationship between the United States and Latin America might have played out with a Hapsburg Mexico in the mix!

All that is, of course, just speculation about what might have been. Alternative history can be interesting, even fun; but it also teaches us that we cannot go back and cannot undo earlier political actions, no matter how malicious or mistaken. Surely, this year's centenary of the start of World War I will warrant lots of alternative history - creative imaginings of what might have been and indeed could have been if only this or that decision had not been made, if only this or that alternative policy had been followed. But, amid all the regret over what actually happened and the dubious turns (whether malicious or merely mistaken) taken in real time, the overwhelming lesson of history is that we can never go back to what was before and so can never create what might have been. We are prisoners of our history,  sentenced for life to navigate within the narrow channels which our predecessors' past actions have bequeathed to our precarious present.

Of course, the flip side of that lesson is that what seems so self-evidently obvious to a dominant culture at any particular point in time - being on that infamous "right side of history," whether it be the Monroe Doctrine in the post-Civil War U.S., or Wilsonian nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe at the end of War I - might merit serious reconsideration, not just in the unseen future but in the very real present. Rarely is a political course as inevitable as we make it seem at the time. If only we could know the future and see the long-term consequences of our actions, we might make significantly different choices. But, of course, such knowledge is hidden from us! All we can rely on is the wisdom we have absorbed from the lessons of past history and the practical prudence we have studiously cultivated in order to inform our judgments. Unlike prophetic knowledge of the future, that intellectual and moral equipment is not inherently unavailable, but neither does it come without the demanding intellectual and moral effort required to resist the self-affirming "right side of history."

Sunday, April 6, 2014


The altar crucifixes, statues, and other sacred images are all veiled in purple today. Until relatively recently, this 5th Sunday of Lent was called “Passion Sunday.” With just 2 weeks to go till Easter, today marks the beginning of Lent’s final phase, as the Church focuses our attention more and more on the final events of Jesus’ earthly life – and why those events matter for us today.

The gospel we just heard recounts the last miracle of Jesus’ public life – miracles which John’s Gospel calls “signs” because they serve to reveal Jesus and invite us to respond to him with faith. But the raising of Lazarus from the dead also had as its consequence the authorities’ decision to have Jesus executed. So life and death are mixed together in this story – as the same event that suggests the new life Jesus makes possible for us also results (on the part of his enemies) in a decision for death. The apostle Thomas’s somewhat surprising exclamation, “Let us also go to die with him,” is actually addressed to us, as the Church invites us to accompany Jesus in his final journey.

Meanwhile, what starts out as a genuinely touching and tender story about the human friendship between Jesus and Lazarus - and the dramatic extension of Lazarus’ earthly lifespan - becomes a story about our relationship now with the Risen Christ and his offer to us of a resurrection similar to his own.

The friendship shared by Jesus and Lazarus extended also to his sisters, Martha and Mary, who first sent him the news of their brother’s serious sickness. Strangely, however, he initially seemed to ignore their message, thus setting the stage for his greatest miracle, but also for a whole series of conversations, the most important (and familiar) of which was the one with Martha, which for so many centuries has been read at Catholic funerals.

Listening in on their conversation today, we hear Jesus’ one-sentence answer to Martha, Your brother will rise, (and her rather matter-of-fact response) rather matter-of-factly ourselves. But there was nothing matter-of-fact about it! Whatever else may happen to people when they died, most people in the ancient world knew for a fact that dead people definitely do not rise back to life from the dead. Among Jews, however, there was at least one group – the Pharisees (whose beliefs Martha apparently shared) – who held the distinctly contrarian view that, whatever else may happen to people when they died, a general resurrection of the dead would follow – in the future, on the last day.

Jesus’ surprising answer to Martha, I am the resurrection and the life, was intended to hint ahead to his own unique experience of resurrection – something neither Martha nor anyone else would have understood at the time, since no one was then expecting the Messiah (or, for that matter anyone else) to rise from the dead, all by himself, ahead of everyone else.

We, however, can follow the story backwards, so to speak. We start from the fundamental fact that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and then we understand his death - and his whole life - in the light of that.

Lazarus was brought back from the tomb to resume his ordinary life (and then to die again eventually).  Jesus, however, would rise out of his tomb in order to live forever. Bystanders had to take away the stone for Lazarus to be able to come out, and Lazarus himself emerged bound hand and foot - as we too tend to go through life bound by burdens big and small, our own version of being tied with burial bands. In Jesus’ case, however, no one would either have to help him to come out or have to untie him. The resurrected life of the Risen Christ is something altogether new and different and means death’s decisive defeat.

Hence the threat that this subversive belief in the resurrection posed – and still poses – to those who see only the familiar world we now know.

John’s Gospel goes on to tell how, as a result of this event, the political leadership decided to kill Jesus - and to eliminate the evidence by killing Lazarus too. It’s like that scene in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, when Herod, hearing that Jesus has been raising people from the dead, declares: “I forbid him to do that. I allow no man to raise the dead.”

Martha’s invitation to Mary, The teacher is here and is asking for you, is addressed to all of us, who are in turn invited to address it to one another - and to this world which so desperately needs to hear it, but which increasingly seems somewhat dead to hope.

After experiencing what Jesus had done for Lazarus, many believed in him, but others went to report him to his enemies. Jesus’ own resurrection, of which this was meant as a hint, likewise challenges each of us to respond - one way or the other.

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 6, 2014.