Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Arise, Hasten, Open"

Few New Testament stories are more familiar than the one we just heard [Luke 1:26-38]. Certainly, the Annunciation is one of the most portrayed scenes in the history of western art, and that tells you something right there! And, of course, every time we pray the Angelus or just recite the Hail Mary, we remember the Annunciation.

There is a famous, if somewhat fanciful, homily on the Annunciation by the great 12th-century Cistercian Abbot and Doctor of the Church, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). In his homily, Bernard imagines Mary pondering how to respond to the angel, and addresses her directly on behalf of the whole human race: Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. … This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet … for on your word depends comfort for the wretches, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the children of Adam, the whole of your race. Bernard goes on as if he were giving Mary much needed advice: Believe, give praise, and receive. … Open your heart to faith, O blessed Virgin, your lips to praise, your womb to the Creator. See the desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. … Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving.

Bernard’s style is fanciful, of course, coming as it does from an era which was much more imaginative than our modern rationalistic and technocratic time. Still it captures something very important about the story. As Pope Benedict XVI summed it up in his 2012 book on the subject: God knocks at Mary’s door, He needs human freedom. … His power is tied to the unenforceable ‘yes’ of a human being. [Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy narratives, 2012, p. 37].

In other words, God stands ready to come to us. He is ready and willing to save us from ourselves. But we have something to do too. We have to get on board with God’s plan. We have to be willing to be saved. Hence the close connection between Mary’s response and that of each one of us over the course of one’s entire life.

Of course, the part played by Mary in the great drama we call the Incarnation was historically unique, something we remember every time we recite the Creed, when we say: For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.

But what Mary did, she did on behalf of all of us. Traditionally, we have understood this in terms of the special connection that exists between Mary and the Church. As one of Saint Bernard’s contemporaries, Blessed Isaac of Stella, expressed it: In a way, every Christian is also believed to be a bride of God’s word, a mother of Christ, his daughter and sister, at once virginal and fruitful… Christ dwelt for nine months in the tabernacle of Mary’s womb. He dwells until the end of the ages in the tabernacle of the Church’s faith. He will dwell forever in the knowledge and love of each faithful soul.”

I often like to say that Advent is not a play. We’re not pretending Jesus hasn’t been born yet and waiting to be surprised on Christmas morning, as if Jesus were Santa Claus. Well, Christmas isn’t a play either. Of course, Christmas commemorates something very important that happened a long time ago, which we remember each year with great joy and gratitude to God. But, if we just confine Christmas to a long time ago, then we will have missed the point entirely. Christmas challenges each one of us here and now to respond, as Mary did, to bring the world back to life again by bringing Christ to the world and the world to Christ. As Pope Francis has written:  Mary let herself be guided by the Holy Spirit on a journey of faith toward a destiny of service and fruitfulness. Today we look to her and ask her to help us to proclaim the message of salvation to all and to enable new disciples to become evangelizers in turn [EG 287].

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 21, 2014.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Vanishing Christmas Midnight Mass

On Christmas Eve, I will joyfully celebrate the traditional Mass at Midnight. But, untraditionally, this will not be the first Christmas Mass in the parish - nor will it likely be the best attended. 

This week, The Tablet has an interesting article on the gradual but evident disappearance of Christmas Midnight Mass from contemporary English Catholic life - The phenomenon which the article addresses also occurs here in the United States. There are, of course, any number of contributing factors, but one obvious factor (which the article itself acknowledges) is the modern option of celebrating Christmas Mass at an earlier hour in the evening - actually just a special instance of an option now available every week since the late 1960s.

Way back when I was a novice in 1981-1982, one of the many priests who came to talk to us during the year lamented how the introduction of evening Masses had disrupted the traditional rhythm of the liturgical day. Instinctively, I resonated with what he was saying. The daily cycle of the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) may matter mainly to clergy and religious, but the loss of the traditional rhythm of Sundays and holy days as festive days devoted to worship, rest, and family has wider social implications that should matter to everyone.

The early mid-20th-century concession of Sunday and holy day evening Masses was motivated by the best of intentions - to make Mass attendance easier for those whose circumstances unfortunately forced them to work on Sunday mornings. Originally, it was clearly intended to be just that. It was certainly not envisioned that Sunday evening Mass would ever replace or rival the morning Mass as the principal celebration. Hence the official reluctance in those early days to permit the celebration of sung Mass in the evenings. Thus, in the minutes of Pius XII's Commission for the Reform of the Sacred Liturgy for March 9, 1954, it was noted: "Care should be taken to ensure among the faithful the idea that Sunday is the Lord's Day is not forgotten. by passing the morning at work or at entertainment, and postponing until the evening the sacred rites that sanctify the feast" (cf. Nicola Giampietro, The Development of the Liturgical Reform As Seen by Cardinal Ferdinando Antonelli from 1948 to 1970, p. 266).

Of course, concessions intended for specific circumstances have a way of becoming universally normative. Then, in the post-conciliar years, the option of Saturday "vigil" Masses was added to the option of Sunday evening Masses - again mainly as a concession to contemporary circumstances which made Sunday Mass attendance difficult or impossible for many people. Soon enough, however, such "vigil" Masses were being celebrated nearly universally as a Mass of convenience, with evident consequences for the celebration of Sunday itself - a day that has increasingly become like any other day in our secular society..

Meanwhile, something similar has been happening with Christmas. Liturgically, it was the Third Christmas Mass - the Missa in die, celebrated post Tertiam - that was theoretically considered the principal Mass. But Midnight Mass was widely experienced as the principal Mass by many - presumably because of its uniqueness as the only occasion in the entire year when ordinary people could attend Mass during the night hours. When I was growing up, the crowds would gather outside the church waiting for the doors to open to be admitted for this very special occasion - so special that the ushers actually wore tuxedos for it! As an altar boy, being picked to serve at Midnight Mass (a privilege exclusively reserved for 8th graders) was considered quite something. It's all quite different now, of course. Almost 20 years ago, when I was trying to recruit altar servers for Christmas Midnight Mass, one server immediately turned it down as an inconvenient time!

There are places - midtown Manhattan, for example - where Midnight Mass can still draw a big crowd. But obviously for many people in many places it is no longer extraordinary or exotic to attend Mass at midnight - especially when it is just as dark at 10:00 or 8:00 or even 6:00 and far more convenient to attend Mass then. Of course, the difference between Mass at midnight and Mass at, say, 10:00 p.m. or 11:00 p.m. really is a rather modest one experientially. The more serious problem arises when the first Christmas Mass (which is often also the best attended Mass) is significantly earlier.

However special Midnight Mass may have been in the past, many - maybe most - worshippers still attended Mass at the usual times on Christmas morning. (As children, our typical Christmas routine was up very early to see what Santa brought, open all our presents, then off the the regular 9:00 School Mass, then home for breakfast, while the adults attended a later Mass.) But now there seems to be a notable shift away from Mass on Christmas morning to Mass on Christmas Eve - and often quite early on Christmas Eve.

One of the English priests interviewed in the Tablet article worried out loud about this trend.  “We have turned our practice of the faith into a matter of convenience rather than a matter of commitment,” he said.

That judgment may be somewhat harsh. After all, there may be many good reasons which impel people to attend Mass early on Christmas Eve. For example, many travel on Christmas Day to visit family members who in an earlier era would have likely lived closer. On the other hand, there is certainly the danger that we may - inadvertently and with the best of intentions - be turning December 25 into a virtually a-liturgical day. And what will this mean for Christmas as a  holy day in the long term? 

Friday, December 19, 2014


Not being of Cuban descent and not being from Florida, I have given very little thought to Cuba in recent years. Of course, I can well remember the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Castro's visits to New York in 1959 and 1960, President Eisenhower's termination of diplomatic relations in January 1961, the Bay of Pigs later that April, and the October 1962 Missile Crisis during which Kennedy and Khrushchev took the world to the very brink - because of Cuba. After that, Cuba more or less receded from mine - and, I suspect, most non-Cubans' - consciousness. Every now and then, we get some reminder that Cuba is still something of a problem - but hardly the threat it once was to the national interest when, as a client state of the Soviet Union, Cuba was in the business of fomenting revolution and otherwise making trouble not just in the Western Hemisphere but also in Africa. 

On the other hand, Cuba has remained a perennial problem for our political class, as evidenced by the latest round of speculation whether President Obama's action might cost Hillary Clinton (or whoever) Florida's electoral votes. Personally I think it is just too soon to know and so should also be too soon to speculate. There is some credible evidence of ideological movement on this issue on the part of younger Cuban-Americans, who could comprise a decisive segment of Florida's voters. I guess we'll just have to wait and see!

Besides the United States and Cuba, the third big winner in the restoration of full diplomatic relations would seem to be the diplomacy of the Holy See. Two previous popes - Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI - have visited Cuba, and we now know that the Holy See has been directly involved for a year or so in the negotiations that have led to this latest development. The fact that President Obama made a point of praising Pope Francis' role in this process speaks not only to the significant contribution of  the Holy See's diplomacy but also to the continued potential for cooperation on common concerns between the Holy See and the Obama Administration. And that is surely all to the good, as is the Holy See's enhanced diplomatic profile.

Needless to say, this rapprochement between the United States and Cuba does not signify a fundamental change in the character of the Castro regime - or any re-evaluation of that regime on our part. If diplomatic recognition meant moral approbation, we would have far fewer embassies indeed! The basic facts about the Castro regime remain the same and are likely to remain so for some time. And change, if and when it comes, will not necessarily reflect American and democratic values. China, for example, has changed enormously since President Nixon's much more radical opening to China and the restoration of diplomatic relations. Compared with Mao's regime, China today is a much better society to be sure, but no one would seriously suggest it has moved or is likely to move any time soon in a more democratic direction. 

In the larger picture, I am not sure how much it matters that full diplomatic relations are to be restored between the U.S. and Cuba. But it may matter very much that both countries can communicate better and that this particular relic of the Cold War may finally be put to rest and we all get to move forward instead of staying stuck in the 1960s. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

To Live the Present with Passion

Today is the 195th anniversary of Servant of God Isaac Hecker’s birth in New York City in 1819. A quarter century later later, on his first birthday as a Catholic, the future founder of the Paulist Fathers wrote in his Diary: “It is my 25th birthday; here let me offer myself to Thee for thy service oh Lord. Is it not what I should? Am I not Thine? Thou didst create me and ever hast sustained me. Thine I am. Accept me oh my God as thine, a child who needs most thy love and protection.”

Recently, I commented briefly on the first of the three aims identified by Pope Francis for this Year of Consecrated Life, “to look to the past with gratitude” - something that should come easily to us Paulists at this time of year when we recall our founder’s birth (and also his death, which occurred on December 22, 1888). The second and third aims which the Pope has proclaimed for this Year of Consecrated Life are “to live the present with passion” and “to embrace the future with hope.” In regard to the second aim, the Pope is asking those in religious communities, having remembered our past, to then “listen attentively to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church today, to implement ever more fully the essential aspects of our consecrated life.”

One of the things that was so strikingly distinctive about Hecker’s approach to religious life was his intense personal devotion to the Holy Spirit and his desire to promote among all an increased appreciation of and openness to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In terms of what the Holy Spirit may be saying to the Church today, Hecker saw his new community as an expression of a special grace given to meet the special needs of our epoch and thus “renew the life of the members of the Church and extend her fold.” How to do that in the quite different circumstances of the 21st century is the great challenge facing us and all religious communities - as indeed the entire Church.

The second and third aims the Holy Father has proposed for this Year are only conceptually separate. In practice they go together. Passion presupposes hope for the future and hope inspires passion in the present. Throughout his life, Hecker lived in hope – as he once wrote in a letter to a friend: “Living and working in the dawning light of an approaching, brighter, more glorious future for God’s Holy Church. A future whose sun will rise first on this continent and spread its light over the world.”

Such hope is the great gift God has given to the world in giving us his Son, Jesus, who was born into our world at Christmas and continues to live among us and renew us, Christmas after Christmas.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


In the liturgy of Paul VI, today begins the final part of Advent: "The weekdays from December 17 up to and including December 24 are ordered in a more direct way to preparing for the Nativity of the Lord" (Universal Norms on the Liturgical year and the Calendar, 42). For liturgical aficionados, this means things like the O-Antiphons. For ordinary daily Mass attenders, it means finally hearing gospel readings that are actually attuned to Advent (as opposed to the less obviously seasonal Gospel selections the 1970 lectionary assigns to most of Advent up until December 16). For today it means the wonderful - if all too seldom proclaimed - Gospel reading of the genealogy of Jesus. (For whatever reason, the 1970 Lectionary fails to include the genealogy among any of the Sunday Gospels.)

Older generations may also remember the Rorate Masses, Advent Votive Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary that used to be celebrated in certain places daily before dawn during this final week before Christmas. When I was stationed in Toronto, I remember an Altar Servers' appreciation event at which a bishop spoke to the kids nostalgically about serving as an altar boy at Rorate Masses in the dark and cold early mornings in mid-20th-century Hungary!

Rorate Masses were relatively rare in most modern people's experience. But older generations will certainly remember the Advent Ember Days (the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the 3rd Week of Advent). In the pre-Paul VI calendar, today would have been Ember Wednesday, and its Mass was once known as the Missa aurea ("Golden Mass") for its focus on the account of the Annunciation and the awesome mystery of the Incarnation. The ancient Mass of Ember Wednesday (for which the Roman stational church was always the Basilica of Saint Mary Major) began with the familiar Advent antiphon: Rorate caeli desuper, et nubes pluant justum; aperiatur terra, et germinet Salvatorem (“Drop down dew, you heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the just one; Let the earth be opened and bud forth a Savior").

The December Ember Days were very ancient and were actually older than the rest of the Advent season. Being seasonal in nature, the quarterly Ember Days were always associated with the rhythms of the natural year and of the agricultural cycle, but they were also associated with ordinations. In fact, the December Ember Saturday was in ancient Christian Rome the principal occasion for priestly ordinations. The Paul VI liturgy's suppression of the Ember Days that had served the Church so well for a millennium and a half was perhaps one of the reform's more pointless impoverishments of the liturgy and calendar. In view of the contemporary Church's dire need for priestly vocations, perhaps some sort of retrieval of at least the spirit of those old Ember Days might yet prove beneficial in highlighting the need for vocations to continue the Church's mission in the third millennium.