Monday, September 29, 2014

Michael my Archangel

Recently, I have noticed how some "traditionalist" blogs and websites seem to be full of references to a Sung Mass here, a Solemn Mass there, even Pontifical Mass - all presumably impeccably carried out with wonderfully inspiring music. Of course, those of us who remember the old Missal also remember how relatively rare such beautiful liturgies were and how ubiquitous instead was the very different experience of silent Low Mass - often rushed and obviously lacking in the grand solemnity of the old Missa in cantu. But one interesting thing that Low Mass did have that the more solemn, sung versions did not have was the Leonine Prayers, recited after Mass kneeling at the foot of the altar in the vernacular. 

A noticeable minority regularly rushed out at the end of the Last Gospel, skipping the Leonine Prayers completely, which suggests that they may not have really caught on all that much in terms of popularity with people. But there was one of those "Prayers after Low Mass," that I for one really liked. That was the prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel, added by Pope Leo XIII in 1886. St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits, who prowl about the world seeking the ruin and destruction of souls. 

As I have remarked elsewhere, I truly loved that prayer. It formed my image of that great warrior Archangel, and it motivated me to choose Michael as my confirmation name. As a nerdy 9-year old, ever in danger of being bullied, no doubt I wanted somehow to identify with its strong, masculine imagery. That Michael, for all his hyper-masculine image, was ultimately a bodiless - and so sexless - spirit did not seem at that time to enter into my calculation! In any case, that was the name I proudly picked to be confirmed with. And so, on the afternoon of September 22, 1957, I trudged up to the altar with my name card in hand. The pastor took the card and read out the name (in the nominative case). The Bishop, sitting on his faldstool, then addressed me by that name (in the vocative case, as I would later learn): Michaele, signo te signo crucis et confirmo te chrismate salutis, in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. And that was that! I was confirmed. That and a slap on the face made me a soldier of Christ!

In the Old Testament Book of Daniel, Michael appears in Daniel's apocalyptic visions as a great "prince," and the heavenly protector of Israel - initially against Persia (Daniel 10:13-21) and then at the time of the Resurrection and General Judgment (Daniel 12:1). I'm sure I knew nothing about that back in 5th grade, but I would have known about his New Testament role, where Michael appears again by name in the Book of Revelation in yet another apocalyptic vision of cosmic conflict "in heaven" between two armies of angels - one led by Michael, the other by the Devil (Revelation 12:7-9). That battle, which presumably is the basis for the image of Michael as the one who thrusts into hell Satan and all the evil spirits was apparently alluded to by Jesus himself, when he told the disciples he had watched Satan fall from heaven like lightning (Luke 10:18).

In the liturgy (with was, of course, my main access to images of Michael) Michael was also mentioned in other, less martial contexts. He was one of the saints we confessed to in the Confiteor. He was mentioned by the celebrant at Solemn Mass when blessing incense at the Offertory. And he was invoked in the Offertory antiphon at all Requiem Masses as the holy standard-bearer leading the faithful departed into the holy light once promised to Abraham and his descendants.

in his talks, Pope Francis has often referred to our perennial adversary the Devil and has warned of his temptations. Certainly, Michael's special role as protector of God's People and leader in our ongoing war with Satan still strongly resonates with me, as does the somewhat more comforting image (at my advancing age) of Michael leading the departed safely into the promised realm of light.

The Leonine Prayers are gone now (as, for that matter, is Low Mass) and probably not much missed - although the prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel that I used to like so much seems to be experiencing some surprising resurgence in popularity. Michael is still honored today (the traditional "Michaelmas Day" in England), although the two other archangels, Gabriel and Raphael, have for some strange reason been deprived of their own days (formerly March 24 and October 24) and have been somewhat artificially tacked on to Michael's day today. But for me this always remains Michael's day, as indeed Michael remains my own particularly chosen patron - my very own archangel.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Changing Course

One of the age-old questions people ask is whether and how much people can really change. Is it actually possible to start over again, or are we fated to follow the same patterns, for better or for worse, all our lives? How we answer that will likely determine our attitude on any number of issues. And we’re not necessarily consistent in how we answer either. Starting over, wiping the slate clean, doing something new, starting all over again – all that is part of the language of America, isn’t it? Isn’t that part of what it meant to be an immigrant and come here in the first place – and keep moving? Americans remain the most mobile people in the world, the least rooted, the ones most ready to pick and go and try something else. On the other hand, in our own lives, we often feel stuck – in a place, in a job, in a relationship, in addictive or otherwise destructive behavior, whatever. We’re all increasingly aware of how limited our choices can sometimes seem, and we can make all the corresponding excuses.
It is true, of course, that we can never completely undo the past. Who we have been and what we have done – our actions, our choices, our mistakes, our failures – are part of who we are now. We are in some sense always products of our past. And being honest and realistic about who we have been and what we have done or failed to do, to recognize our limits and learn to live with them, has a certain value.  But that can also become an excuse, a rather lame excuse, and also perhaps particularly poisonous excuse, never to try anything new, to become a sort of silent spectator in the story of one’s life. How often have we heard someone say – or perhaps have said it ourselves – “What can I do? That’s just the way things are,” or worse “That’s just the way I am. I just can’t change!”

And yet change is just what Jesus was inviting the people to do with his story of the man with the two sons [Matthew 21:28-32]. As parables go, this seems like a simple one, a simple example of changing one’s behavior for the better. But, as Jesus’ concluding words of rebuke suggest, changing it for the better just doesn’t always happen. There is absolutely nothing automatic about it.

As he often did, Jesus told a simple story to make a serious point. Paul applied it to all of history, in which Jesus himself is the change. Have the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, Saint Paul advised the early Christian community at Philippi [Philippians 2:1-11].

In direct and conspicuous contrast to typical, ordinary, normal, human behavior (going back all the way to Adam), Jesus changed course. Jesus was unselfish, humble, and obedient. In contrast to the typical, ordinary, normal, human self-centeredness, which dominates and directs most of human history (again going back all the way to Adam), Jesus’ obedience to his Father has changed our human history and has made it possible for each of us to undo our own destructive patterns of the past and alter the course of our own personal history.

It is still true, of course, that we cannot undo the past, and that we are in some sense always products of our past – both our own personal past and the collective past of our shared human history. But the good news of the Gospel is that something new really has happened in the world in Jesus. And because of that there is now no sin that we cannot break away from. We cannot undo the past, but acknowledging the past can set the stage for changing course in the present. That’s what repentance is – something we can now do, not on our own, of course, not all by ourselves, but by being remodeled in the image of God’s Son, who empowers us to share in his new life.

That’s why I’ve always liked the traditional Confession of Sin found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. It starts out with a blunt admission of past failures: We have erred and strayed from they ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done. And we have done those things which we ought not to have done. And there is no health in us.

But then the next word is But! That But is God’s mercy and forgiveness for the sake of his Son, as a result of which the prayer concludes grant, O most merciful Father for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of his holy Name.

In Jesus, the direction of human history has been changed, and the entire human race has been offered a change of heart, given the chance to change course, once and for all. In telling us this parable, Jesus makes clear that he does not want us to focus forever on our first response, on our initial (and however often repeated) failure to follow, but rather, having (as Saint Paul says) the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, to let ourselves be changed. Let’s get going, Jesus is inviting us, into that vineyard where his own life and example are leading!

Homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 28, 2014

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Our Lady of Ransom

In the pre-1970 calendar, September 24 was the feast of Our Lady of Ransom (also known as Our Lady of Mercy). It commemorated the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on August 1, 1218, to St. Peter Nolasco, to his confessor Saint Raymond of Pennafort, and to King James I of Aragon. In response to this, Saint Peter Nolasco founded the Order of Our Lady of Mercy (Mercedarians), devoted to the redemption of Christians who had become Muslim captives. As Diarmaid Mac Culloch has noted in his monumental The Reformation: A History (2005), European Christians were still being captured and enslaved by Ottoman pirates in significant numbers well into the 16th century - a problem ultimately resolved only by the Turks' decisive naval defeat at Lepanto in 1571 and the ensuing decline of Ottoman power.

That decline ended the threat and therefore the significance (so it was alleged) of Our Lady of Ransom in the liturgical calendar. According to Cardinal Antonelli's account, on November 27, 1953, Pius XII's Pontifical Commission for the Reform of the Sacred Liturgy discussed the fate of this feast. Both Monsignor Enrico Dante and Father Augustine Bea, among others, favored its abolition - on the obvious grounds that the original object of the feast and of the Order no longer had the importance they once had had. Our Lady of Ransom survived the rubrical reform of 1960, but was reduced to a commemoration - before being dropped altogether in the more radical1969 calendar revision.

History may not literally repeat itself, but, with today's latest beheading of a French national by Islamic militants in Algeria, it seems evident that there has arisen again an acute danger to Westerners of capture by modern-day Islamists. So perhaps the liturgical reformers - in this (as in so many other matters relating to the calendar) - tragically misread the direction of history! In any case, the commemoration of Our Lady of Ransom shares with some other abandoned practices (like, for example, the Leonine prayer "for the freedom and exaltation of Holy Mother the Church") a renewed relevance in today's world of war, terrorism, and religious persecution.

Here (in the translation provided by my childhood Saint Joseph Daily MIssal) is the old Collect for the feast of Our Lady of Ransom: O God, by means of the most glorious Mother of Your Son, You were pleased to give new offspring to Your Church fro the ransoming of Christians from the power of the pagans; grant, we beseech You, that we too, who love and honor her as the foundress of so great a work, may by her merits and prayers be ourselves delivered from all our sins and from the bondage of the devil.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Autumn Sonnet

At 10:29 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time last night, summer ended and fall began. As always, no seasonal change was more eagerly awaited or fervently welcomed in my mind than this annual autumnal equinox.

As if on cue, the weather has begun to get noticeably cooler in the last couple of days.In fact, it got down into the 40s in Knoxville overnight! Of course, it is warming up now. And, for sure, we can expect plenty of sunny and hot days ahead. But the climactic arc is at last bending in the right direction.  

For me, autumn has always been the season of new beginning, especially given the importance of the school calendar in so much of my life (including parish life). I've also always been attracted to the Jewish idea of beginning the year in the fall, when the refreshing rains return to Israel, filling the cisterns and bringing the land back to life after the scorching dry season of summer. 

As I get older, of course, other images predominate, and the life-cycle symbolism of the seasons takes on added significance. So I began this first day of fall, with Shakespeare's Sonnet 73

That time of year thou mayest in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all the rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thous perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Political Journalism's Downward Spiral

Yesterday's New York Times Magazine featured an article by Matt Bai, "How Gary Hart's Downfall Forever Changed American Politics." Now, I probably haven't given a thought to Gary Hart in years - decades actually. But, as Bai reminds us, he was probably the first serious Baby-Boomer presidential contender. If his aspirations foreshadowed the political rise of his generation, his 1987 downfall through personal scandal initiated our contemporary destructive relationship between politics and the media.

Bai contrasts the post-World War II news business, in which "the surest path to success was to gain the trust of politicians and infiltrate their world," with the situation in the 1980s, when "Watergate and television had combined to awaken an entirely new kind of career ambition." For younger, post-Watergate journalists, Bai observes, "there was no greater calling than to expose the lies of a politician, no matter how inconsequential those lies might turn out to be or in how dark a place they might be lurking."

The key here, I think, is the "no matter how inconsequential those lies might turn out to be" part. Indeed, I think, the most distinctive characteristic of contemporary political coverage is the almost complete lack of interest in substantive issues and policies and repeated emphasis on often inconsequential personal characteristics and "gaffes" and the faux outrage they produce that substitutes for intelligent debate.

Bai is right in describing the Gary Hart scandal as "the very moment when the walls between the public and private lives of candidates, between politics and celebrity, came tumbling down forever." By the 1990s, Bai argues, "the cardinal objective of all political journalism had shifted from a focus on agendas to a focus on narrow notions of character, from illuminating worldviews to exposing falsehoods." This, Bai argues, has driven "a lot of potential candidates with complex ideas away from the process, and it made it easier for a lot of candidates who knew nothing about policy to breeze into national office, because there was no expectation that a candidate was going to say anything of substance anyway."

No expectation! What a commentary on the political culture modern journalism has helped to create! I well remember the excitement of the Watergate years. But subsequent history has highlighted its terrible, destructive consequences - among them, the legitimation of impeachment as a political tactic and the de-legitimation of the political process, the latter encouraged and exacerbated by our adversarial media.

If politics were merely entertainment (which is essentially what journalists have turned it into and how we now largely tend to treat it), perhaps it might matter less. It would still be emblematic of and contribute to the constant coarsening of our culture. And that would be no small matter. But politics is also and primarily the arena in which we collectively as a national community can address the pressing problems we face. And how well we face up to them - or fail to do so - will determine the quality of our future. And that - in the decades since Watergate and since the taking down of Gary Hart - is what we are increasingly incapable of accomplishing as a society. And that seems to me to be no small matter at all!