Thursday, December 28, 2017

Go and See the Baby

The Christmas story tells us that God became man. He arrived a baby, to a poor family, on the outskirts of the empire. No one special on the surface. But people recognized something great about him. Wisemen traveled a great distance just to find him. The angel told the shepherds the message we all follow around Christmas: Go and see the baby.

Being at the age where friends are settling down means there’s suddenly babies in my life. While I’m struggling with myself, these people are creating whole new people and keeping those tiny, soft people alive. There’s a je ne sais quoi to their big eyes taking it all in and trying to make sense of the their world.

And the world around them has changed by their presence. The parents, grandparents, and friends are all enthralled by the babies, their personalities, their schedules, their every milestone. And everyone wants to see the baby. Looking at it, holding it, be able to stop it from crying—we feel better about ourselves just by being with the baby.

I always thought it would be cool to be pregnant during Advent. But I never really thought about having a baby during Christmas. I don’t think the shepherds or wisemen were brimming with 20-something female hormones, but they still were enthralled by a baby. And we think it’s because that baby is God. But it’s also because that baby is human. Babies are enthralling: so much potential in such a small, squishy body. So much joy and love around it. It seems contradictory that God would come to us in such a humble way, but really, I can’t imagine any better one.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Quick, Rejoice!


The calendar this year really messed up Advent. With Christmas Day falling on a Monday, the fourth week of Advent gets compressed into 24 hours. There is less time to prepare, and most parties are compressed into one week (which is exhausting this introvert). Lent never pulls tricks like this, even when I could really use the shortened time there.

But then Gaudete Sunday arrived, and it lined up perfectly with the beginning of the O Antiphons. And it made so much sense. The light and joy of the third week is the perfect attitude for the antiphons. They are a joyful worship, and they build up the anticipation to Christmas. It may be a compressed Advent. It may be rushed and exhausting. But it can be joyful too.

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Bewildered Lamb

While filling the house with candles and lights, the black cloud descended again. It’s the kind of dark that external light doesn’t dissipate. I tried. But in the end, I knew I just had to ride it out. I lit the Advent candles. I normally read scripture with the wreath, but for some reason, I felt compelled to find a daily devotion. And this was the one that popped up first:

“Do you know what it’s like to lose your bearings and be hopelessly adrift in a sea of uncertainty? To be alone, lost, and disoriented without a sense of direction is one of the worst fears we can encounter.” Ok, you have my attention. It went into the parable of the lost sheep.

Now, I’ve always thought that that parable was pretty straightforward: Jesus loves all of us sheep, and he’ll go to any length to gather each and every one of us in. It’s all about the shepherd. But about that sheep that got lost? “Sheep by nature are very social creatures. An isolated sheep can quickly become bewildered, disoriented, and even neurotic. Easy prey for wolves and lions! The shepherd’s grief and anxiety is turned to joy when he finds the lost sheep and restores it to the fold.”

Since I grew up Christian, I never considered myself the lost sheep, and I never considered the condition the sheep was in. Alone, scared, disoriented, in danger. Maybe even neurotic. A sheep cannot save itself. It cannot find its own way back. It has to rely on its shepherd to find it. It can hide or it can bleat out, but mostly, it can only wait to be saved.

I can hide and wallow or I can cry out for help. But I can’t always save myself or fix the present circumstances. Sometimes I just have to wait my shepherd. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

Be Alert

The last few weeks of the liturgical year are always difficult for me. The end of the long, long stretch until Advent. Thirty-four weeks of waiting around. We’ve been going through the parables for a while. There’s increasing urgency in the readings. Sheep and goats and virgins’ lamps. Stay awake, get right with God, for he’s coming any moment. It’s true, I know, but I don’t feel the urgency. It starts to sounds like a Baptist altar call. I don’t respond to threats of hell.

But I realize that the problem is me (of course).

The message is urgent, but I bop along in my same routine. Recently I was talking about evangelization with some other people, and how St. Catherine of Sienna prayed for the salvation of others’ souls. And I just don’t. I pray for others and their struggles, but I rarely outright pray for the salvation of their soul. It doesn’t seem like a pressing matter.

And I realized other’s salvation doesn’t seem pressing because mine doesn’t either. I don’t treat my soul’s care with the urgency that I should. I get in routines. I don’t pray. I let weeks pass without confession. I don’t do anything particularly bad, but I don’t do anything particularly good either. I’m waiting out the weeks. I’m daydreaming while listening to the call to stay awake.

The new year begins, and the urgency is still there; it all loops back. He comes to save, in regency and in a manger. The risen king and the incarnate babe. Stay awake, be alert. He is coming. Perhaps the colors and candles will shake me from my slothfulness.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Presentation of Mary

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Mary to the Temple. It’s not a big feast in the Western Church, but I do find it interesting. Mary’s presentation mimic’s the presentation of Samuel and Jesus. It represents her dedication to God. The history of the feast is quite old, although it comes from a story of an apocryphal Gospel, is regarded as a useful, if ahistorical, story of Mary’s childhood.

The Protoevangelium of James is a non-canonical Gospel narrative written around 145 that includes the birth and childhood of Mary. It also supports the perpetual virginity of Mary. The book was condemned as inauthentic by Church councils and by Pope Innocent I. It seems to be regarded as one of many infancy Gospels that were written in the second century as Christians wanted more details about the life of Jesus.

In the book, Anne, Mary’s mother, is likened to Hannah—a devout, barren women who dedicates her child to God. Mary’s parents present her to the temple at age 3, where she is raised until her betrothal to Joseph.

The idea of consecrated temple virgins is not a concept that was widely, if at all, practiced in Judaism at the time. However, there are verses in 1 Samuel and 2 Maccabees that suggest there were such women. It seems to be a mix of a Jewish custom of dedicating firstborn sons to God and Roman customs of temple virgins.

The celebration of the Presentation of Mary began with the celebration of the dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary the New in Jerusalem in 543. It is one of the 12 Great Feasts in the Eastern Church (the Orthodox, who have already begun the Nativity Fast, lessen the fast today). It was added to the Western calendar in 1584.

While the Church regards the Protoevangelium of James as apocryphal, she views the story of Mary’s presentation has a sign of her lifelong fidelity to God. The day is also Pro Orantibus Day, a day of prayer for cloistered communities, who dedicate their lives to God “in prayer, silence, and concealment.” 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

St. Gertrude the Great

St. Gertrude the Great was born on Epiphany, 1256 in what is now Germany. She was raised in a monastery, where she received a thorough education. At 25, she began to have visions. She devoted herself to prayer and her writings focused more on spiritual than academic matter.

She wrote a large portion of A Herald of Divine Love (other parts written by her peers). She also wrote her own Spiritual Exercises. It included prayers for various liturgies and feast days throughout the year. St. Francis de Sales used her prayers, and they have been popular throughout Europe for centuries.

She is one of the earliest known devotees to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She had a vision of Christ’s heart, pouring forth like a redemptive fountain from the wound in his side.

One of her most popular prayers is for those in purgatory. She is one of few saints (and to my knowledge the only women) with the title “Great.” She died in 1302. Her feast day is November 16. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

500: Common Places and Confession

Introduction to 500 series

Philip Melanchthon was an academic who Luther recruited to the University of Wittenberg to teach Greek. He became critical of the traditional, scholastic theology being taught in universities at the time. In 1519 he began lecturing on the Gospel of Matthew and Paul’s letters. He was transferred to the theology department.

He defended Luther’s positions on the papacy while Luther was at Wartburg Castle. In 1521 he published Loci Communes. It outlines his thoughts on Christian doctrine from the Epistle to the Romans. Luther said, “Next to Holy Scripture, there is no better book.” It is considered the first book of Lutheran systematic theology and grandfathered Protestant scholasticism.

But perhaps his strongest influence was in the Augsburg Confession, written in 1530, outlining the doctrine of the Protestant Reformation. Emperor Charles V had called on the German princes to submit their religious convictions in an effort to establish political unity in the empire and rally a united support against Turkish invasion. The document contains 21 theses of Lutheran belief and 7 antitheses against the Church.

The Lutheran princes agreed to a military alliance with Charles V; any city or state that gave official assent to the Augsburg Confession could be admitted into the alliance. It solidified Protestant theology as a political player in Europe. The English translation of the Confession was read and assented to by King Henry VIII of England. The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church were strongly influenced by the Confession.  In 1540, Melanchthon revised the Confession; the revised edition, called the Variata, was signed by John Calvin. Most Lutherans held to the “unaltered” edition.

The Augsburg Confession and the league did not truly settle the tension between Charles V and the Lutheran princes. The Schmalkaldic War took place 1546-1547. In September 1555, Charles V and the Schmalkaldic League (signers of the Confession) signed the Peace of Augsburg. The treaty legally divided the Holy Roman Empire and established cuius region, eius religio (“whose realm, his religion”) This allowed rulers to choose Lutheranism or Catholicism as their state religion. Citizens who held different beliefs were given a grace period to freely emigrate to a state holding to the other religion. There were a few mixed cities, where Lutheranism had been practiced since the 1520s but the city’s ruler was Catholic; certain princes and knights were given exemptions. 

For the most part, the Augsburg Confession was a success of modern negotiating. It balanced the rights of Catholic and Lutheran rulers and also considered the welfare of the subjects under them. However, it only recognized one Protestant doctrine, Lutheranism; thus, other Protestant sects that were rising still had no political power. But that would soon be challenged as well.

Friday, November 10, 2017

500: The Peasants Protest Too


Luther’s writings were being spread rapidly throughout literate Europe and gaining followers among academics and German nobles. At the same time, his views were being spread orally among the illiterate. They reached rural areas where communities already had loose catechesis and heretical ideas had nominally been practiced for years (see the result of the Plague). In 1521, three men later called the “Zwickau Prophets” arrived in Wittenberg. They preached that their authority came from the Holy Spirit, not Scripture or the Church. They rejected infant baptism and warned of a coming apocalypse.

Although their views differed wildly from Luther’s, they gained favor with some of Luther’s peers, including Andreas Karlstadt. On Christmas Day 1521, Karlstadt celebrated his first “communion service” in which he wore secular clothes, used German instead of Latin, rejected confession as a prerequisite for communion, and purged all references of sacrifice from the Mass. Luther eventually returned to Wittenberg in order to preach against the “fanatics.”

Karlstadt continued to grow more radical; he got rid of images and music in churches, got married, and rejected infant baptism. He denied the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Politically, the Zwickau Prophets preached an ideal Christian commonwealth, with commodities shared and all men held equal. These ideas were gaining traction among German peasants, who revolted against the aristocracy in the German Peasants’ War of 1524-1525. While all the complex causes and influences in the war are still subject to debate, I think it is clear that the individualism and anti-institutionalism expressed in the growing new religious movements inspired people to seek political change, and vice versa. If the Church is oppressive, then isn’t the king oppressive too? If each man is equal in political power, then isn’t his Biblical interpretations equal too? In both cases, the rural populace wants to be left alone and not told what to do.

Variations of this sort of religious movement popped up across Germany, Switzerland, Moravia, and the Low Countries. There are various pastors from the late 1520s and early 1530s who developed somewhat similar iconoclastic, credo-baptist, pacifist doctrines. The Swiss Brethren were one of the larger of these groups. In 1527 the Swiss Brethren published a confession of faith outline among other things adult-only baptism, symbolic Lord’s Supper, separation from worldly matters, and nonviolence. The belief that baptism of infants was invalid was a large competent of this group, and thus they begin “re-baptizing” adults, earning the name “Anabaptist” (“to baptize again”). Of course, other Christian groups did not recognize these second baptisms as valid. One of these leaders, Felix Manz, was executed by Protestants by way of drowning—a signal of their disapproval of “re-baptisms.”

I think the Anabaptist beginnings share a lot in common with the Awakenings that would spring up over the centuries and with the Pentecostal movement in the early twentieth century. The people outside of the academic circles and noble elites did not care much about complicated doctrines or edicts. They felt religion, and the zeitgeist valued appeals of individual emotion and rejection of foreign institutions.