Mass Meditations – Sacrifice and Coronation

Before going to Mass today, I brought up the Enthronement Ceremony for Japanese Emperor Naruhito, intending to watch it later, though I perused a few photos and brief footage from it.

In this frame of mind, I went to Mass and a number of thoughts went through my mind. I don’t know how much foundation or antiquity these ideas have; they are my own, though naturally informed by the writings of other men. Take them for what they are worth.

First is that the Mass is the participation in the Sacrifice of Christ. In all sacrificial rituals that I am aware of, and most notably the Jewish rituals, an essential part of the sacrifice is the eating of the victim. Thus, in consuming Christ’s Body and Blood, we are partaking in His Sacrifice, which is re-presented for us in the Mass (that is, Christ was sacrificed once and for all – God sacrificed to God – but by miracle that same event is mystically presented to us in the consecration of the bread and wine).

At the same time, it is also a coronation. Christ comes to rule over us, to take His rightful place as the Lord of our bodies and souls. His minister and representative bears Him in and presents Him to us for our veneration (traditionally, we bow to the Priest as the minister and bearer of Christ as he enters and leaves the sanctuary). Which, of course, is part and parcel with the Sacrifice. A sacrifice is an act of obeisance, a sign of submission to the authority of the Deity. Even more so in this case, the sacrifice offered and the Deity offered to are one, so that in partaking of the sacrifice, we also welcome our Lord in to rule over us.

Of course, just as a sacrifice is an act of submission to divine authority, so too is a coronation. The monarch is placed under the rule of the People even as he takes his place as ruler over them. He is ‘sacrificed’ in the act of taking authority, made into a type and figure of the people themselves. Which, of course, Christ also did in His Passion, becoming the new ‘type’ of humanity; Man sacrificed on behalf of Man to God, and God to God.

Here we’re touching on what I find to be a key theme in theological and philosophical matters; that as you approach the Divine, distinctions break down. Rather than reducing things into ever more precise and ever smaller taxonomic categories, apparently distinct things blend together into a common and irreducible whole. Sacrifice and Coronation are revealed to be, in fact, a single thing that we experience under different forms; namely, the submission of man to the Divine and the elevation of the individual to the archetype. The more you really look at God and Man, the more that apparently distinct things – male and female, individual and society, authority and obedience – blur and reveal themselves to be parts of a singular whole. This is what we should expect from Christian teaching, which holds the God is absolutely simple (in the sense that He has no ‘parts’; He is what He is), and that His act of creation is a singular, coherent act; not like how we build something where we say “I want it to do this, which requires this, but then I’d need that to compensate for the other…” For God, His action is absolute and simple; a singular, coherent whole of which we experience a little bit at a time. Thus, when we speak of His Wisdom, His Wrath, and His Mercy, we’re not describing distinct moods or acts of His, but rather how His singular nature strikes up against us in this particular moment.

We’re getting into very deep water there, which I’m not really qualified to navigate. To return to the Mass coronation and sacrifice, the core of it is, of course, the Consecration and distribution of the Eucharist, which is the actual participation in the sacrifice and ascension of the King. The ritual in the lead up to it is, like all such things, a matter of context. In a coronation, the pageantry and speeches, the ritual of it, is meant to place the king in context of his nation and people. A coronation must be done according to ritual, the repeated, traditional pattern born out of history, because a people are their history and their traditions (again, definitions turning to simplicity; a ‘nation’ cannot exist without history, religion, language, customs, and so on). The oaths, the speeches, the ministers are all a matter of context; recalling to the King and to the people what he is and what they are.

In the Mass, we begin with prayers confessing sins and begging pardon, then to proclamations of God’s absolute and singular sovereignty, then to the readings from Scripture, all meant to prepare the mind and heart to receive the Lord, recalling Who and What comes to rule over us, Who and What is sacrificed and Why. The Homily is meant to clarify the readings and other teachings. It is the human touch, the one thing which the priest himself contributes (for you can’t have a purely structured system; you need a man’s judgment and presence to ensure it works ‘on the ground’ as it were). This is followed by the Creed proclaiming the content of our faith, then petitions, then the consecration itself. Finally, just before the presentation and distribution of Our Lord Himself, the recital of the prayer that He Himself gave us. Then, after the distribution is the final blessing and (in the old form) the recital of the preamble of St. John’s Gospel, the most complete and concise summation of the Christian faith in Scripture. It is all a singular event directing to that union with Christ which is at once the participation in His Sacrifice, the reception of Him as King, and the being taken into His being.

You see, it is a singular event, but one that we can’t describe fully, so we have to ‘tack back and forth’ as it were, describing it now this way, now that. Pretty much all the things of God are like that; you can’t fully describe them in a single definition, you have to now emphasize one side of it, now the other, and always aware that you’re not getting the whole in. That is one of the signs that you’re really dealing with something of God. Real, natural things don’t fit into easy formulas; does the lover or the beloved command greater rule? But the more the lover loves, the greater the beloveds hold over him, and the more the beloved desires to be loved, the greater the lover’s hold over her. Is the individual or society supreme? But society can only exist through individuals, and is only as good as its constituent parts, yet the individual cannot survive or even come into being without a community and typically reaches his full realization only in the context of communal service. The greatest men are those who give of themselves in service.

The riddles of God are wiser than the formulas of men.

Sunday Thoughts: 1-5-20

Feast of the Epiphany

Reading 1: Isaiah 60: 1-6

Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem: for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For behold darkness shall cover the earth, and a mist the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light, and kings in the brightness of thy rising. Lift up thy eyes round about, and see: all these are gathered together, they are come to thee: thy sons shall come from afar, and thy daughters shall rise up at thy side. Then shalt thou see, and abound, and thy heart shall wonder and be enlarged, when the multitude of the sea shall be converted to thee, the strength of the Gentiles shall come to thee.

The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Madian and Epha: all they from Saba shall come, bringing gold and frankincense: and shewing forth praise to the Lord.

Reading 2: Ephesians 3: 2-3A, 5-6

If yet you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me towards you: How that, according to revelation, the mystery has been made known to me… Which in other generations was not known to the sons of men, as it is now revealed to his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit: That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and co-partners of his promise in Christ Jesus, by the gospel:

Gospel: Matthew 2: 1-12

When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of king Herod, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. Saying, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him. And king Herod hearing this, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And assembling together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where Christ should be born. But they said to him: In Bethlehem of Juda. For so it is written by the prophet:

And thou Bethlehem the land of Juda art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come forth the captain that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, privately calling the wise men, learned diligently of them the time of the star which appeared to them; And sending them into Bethlehem, said: Go and diligently inquire after the child, and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I also may come to adore him. Who having heard the king, went their way; and behold the star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was. And seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him; and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having received an answer in sleep that they should not return to Herod, they went back another way into their country.

Thoughts:

With the Epiphany, we have ‘wise men from the East’ coming to Jerusalem in search of the newborn King of the Jews, bearing suitable gifts to offer in homage. That is to say, pagan scholars from a distant land – probably Persia – have learned, by their own arts, that Christ the Messiah is come, and they have undertaken a long, arduous journey to behold Him and pay Him honor. Indeed, it is said that they are guided there by “the star,” and through counsels in dreams.

What does all this mean?

Consider these three men; scholars of a distant land. They are educated men, brought up to be philosophers, astrologers, masters of knowledge and the keepers of lore. They are, presumably, literate men. We can imagine them, in their homes or workshops or libraries, pouring through scrolls and manuscripts, committing vast reams of words to memory, even from boyhood. They were relatively wealthy men, as they could travel and bear gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

In the course of their research, perhaps, they found a pattern, or a prophecy. They saw “His star at its rising.” One can picture them looking over their work in awed wonder as they realized what these signs meant; one can imagine them telling their colleagues, trying to convince them of what they had found. Perhaps one or more of them needed convincing from the others. On the strength of their studies, they had faith enough to understand what that “Star” meant and to follow it for perhaps hundreds of miles to a little village in a backwater province of the Roman Empire, where they found a peasant couple and their newborn baby.

The timeline of the Gospels is a little ambiguous. The shepherds around Bethlehem, we know, were the first to hear of His birth and pay Christ homage in the flesh. My own understanding is that the second were Simeon and Anna in the Temple. Then third come these wealthy, educated pagans out of the East, bearing rich gifts and guided by the combined work of an angel of God and their own scholarship.

In so doing, these three eastern scholars unknowingly stand in the place of the entire non-Jewish world. Their presence so near Christ’s birth, and their attendance on him, shows that He will not only be a prophet and king to the Jews, but to all mankind.

They also reveal something else, which shall be crucial for the future of the Church, once it is established. They are a vindication of pagan wisdom, and a pledge that God has not abandoned the gentiles, but has been working through them as well as through the Jews, though in a different fashion. Their studies, their own lore led them to recognize Christ; therefore let no one condemn pagan knowledge or wisdom again. They don’t just bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh; they bring Aristotle and Cicero, Homer and Virgil, Confucius and Lau Tzu, the Ramayana and the Book of Five Rings. The three wise men come to say that there is truth in paganism, or at least the way to truth, and therefore these things are to be cherished and studied, for there can be nothing good but what comes of God and leads to Him. “The strength of the Gentiles shall come to thee.”

Consider, finally, the humility of these men; here, surely, is that pure love of knowledge that is the mark of the true philosopher. Their lore tells them that Christ, the King of the Jews, is to be born in a distant land, the Messiah of a faith they do not practice, and of a people who, ostensibly, are of no account. Seeing that it is so, they undergo great hardships and dangers to bear costly gifts for His honor. They followed His star wherever it went; that is to say, they followed the truth wherever it went, not only in abstract thought, but in concrete action.

This was, indeed, the purpose of all ancient thought, and of all knowledge up until the end of the Middle Ages; we learn things, not that we may change them or manipulate them, but that we may better submit to them. We learn what the world is really like so that we might live accordingly. The purpose was to change ourselves; not the world. The three wise men following the star were following the path of the true man of knowledge: to conform our lives to the truth, wherever it leads.

This is the one common feature among all those who recognize Christ: humility, the willingness to recognize things higher than oneself and conform to them. It is present in the poor shepherds living in and around a tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere, and it is present in rich scholars from Persia. The chief question we have to ask is, is it present in us? Do we seek to follow that star, wherever it leads? Is our main concern, “how can we change our lives to better conform them to the truth?”

Or do we greet the knowledge that something may disrupt our own ideas, our own plans, and our own comfort by being “troubled” by the idea and seeking to silence it at all costs? Is our main concern how we can interpret and use the world to suit our needs and wishes? Do we regard that star, not as primarily true or false, but convenient or inconvenient?

AMDG

 

New Year’s Verses

Chapter 2 of the Book of Sirach always strikes me as the perfect Bible passage for the New Year.

Son, when thou comest to the service of God, stand in justice and in fear, and prepare thy soul for temptation. Humble thy heart, and endure: incline thy ear, and receive the words of understanding: and make not haste in the time of clouds. Wait on God with patience: join thyself to God, and endure, that thy life may be increased in the latter end. Take all that shall be brought upon thee: and in thy sorrow endure, and in thy humiliation keep patience. For gold and silver are tried in the fire, but acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation.

Believe God, and he will recover thee: and direct thy way, and trust in him. Keep his fear, and grow old therein. Ye that fear the Lord, wait for his mercy: and go not aside from him, lest ye fall. Ye that fear the Lord, believe him: and your reward shall not be made void. Ye that fear the Lord, hope in him: and mercy shall come to you for your delight. Ye that fear the Lord, love him, and your hearts shall be enlightened.

My children behold the generations of men: and know ye that no one hath hoped in the Lord, and hath been confounded. For who hath continued in his commandment, and hath been forsaken? or who hath called upon him, and he despised him? For God is compassionate and merciful, and will forgive sins in the day of tribulation: and he is a protector to all that seek him in truth. Woe to them that are of a double heart and to wicked lips, and to the hands that do evil, and to the sinner that goeth on the earth two ways. Woe to them that are fainthearted, who believe not God: and therefore they shall not be protected by him.

Woe to them that have lost patience, and that have forsaken the right ways, and have gone aside into crooked ways. And what will they do, when the Lord shall begin to examine? They that fear the Lord, will not be incredulous to his word: and they that love him, will keep his way. They that fear the Lord, will seek after the things that are well pleasing to him: and they that love him, shall be filled with his law. They that fear the Lord, will prepare their hearts, and in his sight will sanctify their souls.

They that fear the Lord, keep his Commandments, and will have patience even until his visitation, Saying: If we do not penance, we shall fall into the hands of the Lord, and not into the hands of men. For according to his greatness, so also is his mercy with him.

Welcome to 2020, everyone.

A Couple of Christmas Thoughts

-Christ’s birth as a child, a baby, is the supreme sign of God’s good will toward men. This is what all those horrible passages of the Old Testament must be read in light of, along with all the horrible things that happen to us men in this world. It seems like God is cruel, or arbitrary, or indifferent…but then, He chose to be born among us as an infant, a peasant child. And then to suffer and die for our sake. This is the key, the capstone that must be fit into every conception of God and the world that we might form.

 

-We celebrate Christmas as the coming of Christ into the world, rather than the Annunciation, which is technically when He first took on flesh, for this reason. The great effect of Christmas upon the story of mankind is that it is the manifestation of Christ before the nations; the beginning of God’s bringing all mankind to Himself. Before this, humanity was left with vague visions, nagging, half-formed dreams of what God or the gods were like and what his purpose in this world was. They could claw their way to a half-formed image of Him by great effort and great wisdom, and they pursued holiness and righteousness according to such lights as they had. It was truly man’s search for God. The only exception were the Jews, who knew God and His Law, but were not a proselytizing people. They guarded their knowledge of God rather than spread it.

Thus, the nine months that Christ spent in Mary’s womb were, properly speaking, still part of that time of waiting and uncertainty, because He was still hidden away from the rest of mankind. It was the final stage of that time, when it’s end had in fact been assured, but not yet manifested. Christmas is that manifestation. Christmas is, as so properly marked in the calendar, the demarcation point between the old world and the new: the world where man was searching for God and the world where he had been found by Him.

 

 

An Urgent Call for Prayer

On November 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, let the Church Militant (that is us) be united in prayers for the Church in this time of crisis:

-November 1st: The Feast of All Saints. Holy Day of Obligation. Attend Mass and say the Memorare after Communion.
-November 2nd: The Feast of All Souls. Pray for the dead, visit a cemetery if you can, and attend Mass if you can (though not a day of obligation). Say the Memorare after communion if you attend Mass, at some point in the day if you don’t, for the sake of the suffering.
-November 3rd: Sunday. Holy day of obligation. Attend Mass and say the Memorare after Communion for the Church Militant.

We desperately need to be praying, and praying hard, for the Church, now more than ever. Let’s get to it.

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.

Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me.

Amen.

Saint John Henry Newman

It’s rare that we get good news from the Church these days, so cherish it when it comes! Cardinal Newman, the great English convert of the 19th century, whose return to Rome sparked something of a Catholic renaissance in that noble, yet obstinate island kingdom, is now declared a Saint. 

Cardinal Newman is one of those writers whom I regard as something of a personal spiritual master – though alas, I haven’t read as much of him as I would like – along with St. Francis de Sales, Dietriech von Hildebrand, and Professor Tolkien. What I mean is that his approach to spirituality, his understanding of the world, and his insights are of the kind that fit especially with my own personality and make the most sense to me. This, incidentally, is one of the glorious things about the Communion of Saints: there are so many and they are all so unique that if one doesn’t make an appeal to you, there are always others who will. The transforming power of Christ can be expressed through an infinity of personalities; in one it leads to the recklessly joyful abandon of a St. Francis, in another the intense focus and genius of a St. Thomas, and in still another the energy and regal authority of a St. Lewis.

St. John Henry Newman (not to be confused – though I’m sure he will be – with St. John Neuman, Bishop of Philadelphia) was more of the St. Thomas school; a crushingly brilliant scholar and masterful writer, he found his way into the Church through careful study of the early fathers and church history, along with his perceptive understanding of the flaws in Anglicanism and Protestantism. The account of this journey he laid down in his masterful autobiography Apologia pro Vita Sua, then later presented a fictionalized account of his experience in Loss and Gain: the Story of a Soul, both of which I have read and highly recommend, not only for their spiritual and theological insights, but also for the beautiful portrait of a now lost world of manners, intellect, and peace: the world of the middle and upper class England of the early-to-mid 19th century. Newman was as much a part of that world as St. Thomas was of the Medieval, and his example and ideas of gentlemanly behavior are, perhaps, as important a witness as any other to us today.

Loss and Gain mostly amounts to intelligent young Englishmen sitting around holding intellectual discussions. For me that’s enough to make it interesting, but I suppose it’s an acquired taste (though there is a very funny scene near the end where the hero is besieged by advocates for fashionable new religious communions, apparently figuring that if he’s considering Rome he must be up for grabs). Apologia is definitely worth reading both for the insight into his own life and for the brilliant argumentation on display (it was prompted by a slanderous attack by the Reverend Charles Kingsley, author of Westward Ho!, who was a virulent anti-Catholic and accused Newman of being secretly in the employ of the Roman Church all along. Seeing the Saint destroy his accusations is a delightful exercise in proper argumentation).

Alas, I’m not in a position to give a really good overview of St. John Henry Newman’s life or works: I’ve read (or listened to) several, but he is a great river and I can’t claim to have explored more than a few stretches. Suffice to say, he is an ornament to the Church, and his kind of clarity and intellectual insight are desperately needed today.

I shall let him have the final word:

“[T]here is no medium, in true philosophy, between Atheism and Catholicity, and…a perfectly consistent mind, under those circumstances in which it finds itself here below must embrace either the one or the other.”
-Apologia

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’ encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on;
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on;
I loved the garish day, and spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will; remember not past years.

So long Thy pow’r has blest me, sure it still
Wilt lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

Ora pro nobis.

Thought of the Day 10 – 12: On Strange Spiritual Fears

I think most of us have strange, unconscious fears. These are things we would never argue or claim out loud, which we’re barely even conscious of, but which guide our actions more than we realize.

For instance, many people have the idea that if they say “I have never been stung by a wasp,” it will guarantee that they will be stung before long. Now, no one would actually claim in so many words that what they say influences the insect kingdom, but it’s a kind of half-conscious notion arising from a combination of hearsay (everyone loves an irony story), superstition, and unexamined experience (that is, most everyone has had the experience of a thing happening for the first time shortly after commenting that it has never happened).

For me, I realized that when I’m praying for something, I feel like I have to be very specific and explain exactly what I mean for fear that, if I’m not, I’ll get something that is technically what I wanted, but the worst possible example of it. Basically imagining God and the Saints in the role of those evil genies who always grant wishes as maliciously as possible. E.g. if I ask St. Joseph to find me a job, I have the idea he might answer with, “son, there is a crab boat with your name on it!”

Obviously, this isn’t the case; God loves us, and the Saints presumably have left any malicious humor behind. The nice thing about these fears is that once you recognize them, they fade pretty easily as they’re so patently absurd.