Monday, May 25, 2015

Marian Mondays in May: Regina Caeli

Regina Caeli means “Queen of Heaven.” As mother of the King, Mary holds the title of Queen Mother. At Vatican II, Mary was called Queen of the Universe. Not too shabby for a poor girl from backwoods Judea. The title Queen of Heaven is often associated with her assumption into heaven; it is said that she assumed and then was crowned. She is often depicted as the woman in Revelation with the moon under her feet and a crown of stars on her head.

In the Old Testament, the Queen Mother had persuasive power in court. Solomon tells Bathsheba that he will not refuse her request (1 Kings 2:20). Similarly, Jesus performs his first miracle at Mary’s request (John 2:3-6). This courtly power of the Queen Mother is one of the reasons Mary is such a popular intercessor; people ask for her prayers because in heaven, her requests will not be refused. 

The Liturgy of the Hours has antiphons to Mary the Queen, including the anthem Regina Caeli. My favorite is the Salve Regina (Hail Queen).

Monday, May 18, 2015

Marian Mondays in May: Our Lady of Sorrows

It’s doesn’t take much scratching to uncover Catholicism’s rather macabre imagery. Crucifixion, hearts outside bodies (Sacred Heart), punishments of fire, decapitated saints walking around, swords and arrows and nails piercing bleeding flesh, St. Lucia carrying her own eyes on a plate—I’m honestly surprised more people don’t dress as saints for Halloween. Mary, who is often depicted as the beautiful young woman, is not immune from some morbid imagery. One instance of this is Our Lady of Sorrows, in which Mary is weeping for all the suffering Christ and God’s children must endure. Her bleeding heart is pierced by seven daggers.

The seven daggers represent the Seven Sorrows of Mary:
1. The Prophecy of Simeon (“This child is appointed for the fall and rising again of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed—and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”)
2. The Flight to Egypt
3. Losing Jesus in the Temple
4. Meeting Jesus on the Way to Calvary
5. Jesus Dies on the Cross
6. Receiving Jesus’ Body
7. Placing Jesus in the Tomb

This devotion was developed by Servites (the Servants of Mary, an order founded after she appeared to seven Florentines during the Feast of the Assumption) in the thirteenth century. Medieval Europeans loved numbered lists; I share that love of organization. Our Lady of Sorrows is the patron of Slovakia. The Feast of the Seven Sorrows has been celebrated in several places, and the date of the feast has shifted from Eastertide, to after Pentecost, to the third Sunday in September.

Friday, May 15, 2015

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 102)

1. Yes, it’s been a few weeks since I did a Quick Takes. I just couldn’t find seven things in any particular week. It’s been pretty quiet. I’ve been wasting this vast amount of free time. I can't say that this will return to any regularity soon.

2. I graduated this past weekend. I didn’t go to the ceremony, so it hasn’t quite hit yet. I’ll pick up my diploma in a few weeks. That might help.

3. Still continuing the job search. Still don’t know what I want to do with my life.

4. The summer is creeping in. The afternoons are getting too hot for my taste, and the humidity is getting high enough that my hair will frizz out any day now. The mornings are still pleasant, and I’m trying to force myself out of bed to be productive during the nice part of the day.

5. I read an article earlier this week on the average American Catholic. I don't really know what to make of it other than that it seemed accurate to my limited observations.

6. I bought a bunch of books this week. One benefit of finishing grad school is all the time to read things for pleasure instead of class/research. Working on some Hemingway. Attempting Camus next. I don’t know why either of these choices seemed like a good idea for someone trying to starve off post-grad-unemployment depression.

7. My favorite picture of the week. Two of my journalism role models: Lisa Ling and Anderson Cooper.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

What Goes Up...

Today is the 40th day of Easter and the traditional Feast of the Ascension. (It’s now commonly commemorated on the following Sunday.) We often treat Easter Sunday as a blockbuster ending—Death is defeated. Jesus wins! Jesus wins! Pentecost starts a new story, the history of the Church, with the disciples spreading the message across the world. But there are 50 days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost. To me, these days are fascinating, though we know so little about them. The resurrected Christ walked on earth and taught the apostles. After 40 days, he ascended. The disciples retreated into prayer, emerging as new men. They no longer were the followers who were always saying, “I don’t get it.” They were the leaders of the Church, the bearers of the Gospel: Christ became man to live among us. He died for us. He resurrected and remained to instruct us. He will come again, when the story is truly completed. What goes up will come back down. The days of Easter are a radical, transforming time.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Marian Mondays in May: Theotokos

Theotokos is one of the oldest titles given to Mary, going back to the third century. It’s often roughly translated into English as “Mother of God,” but a more accurate translation means “God-bearer.” The solemnity of Mary, Mother of God is celebrated on January 1, which is also the day of Jesus’ circumcision.

I think both translations of Theotokos reflect interesting aspects of Mary and Christ. One question I often had as a kid (and I think a lot of Christian kids do) was “Who was God’s mommy?” which was really a way of asking, “Where did God come from?” or “What came before God?” The concept of an eternal being is hard to impress upon kids who haven’t developed abstract thinking yet. But interesting, although God has no beginning, he does have a mother. Jesus is fully God, therefore, the mother of Jesus is the mother of God. She was the one who carried God Incarnate in her womb, who raised him as a child, who urged him to perform his first miracle, who followed him to the cross.

“God-bearer” focuses again on the incarnation part of her role as Christ’s mother. She literally bore God into his own creation. She served as the Ark of the New Covenant. God used Mary to unite the Word and flesh. The term Theotokos was affirmed at the Council of Ephesus in in 431. The council primarily dealt with Christ’s nature as fully God and fully man. Affirming Mary as the Theotokos was a logical conclusion of the affirmation of the Nicene Creed and hypostatic union.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

7 Red Flags

I read a lot about religion, and over time I’ve accrued a series of phrases and buzzwords that I immediately mark as red flags. It’s not that these phrases are particularly aggressive or heretical, but when I hear or read someone using them, I can almost guarantee that I’m not going to take the person as a source of wisdom or authority. For me, the phrases are too assumptive or too simplistic to belong in deep conversations about Christianity.

1. “the Bible clearly says/ just read the Bible” This is probably the one I encounter the most, so much so that the single word “clearly” all but guarantees I’m going to stop you right there. The Bible is a complex anthology of sacred texts (of differing canons) written by different groups in different places and different languages over centuries. It takes education and contextual understanding to make sense of parts of it. If it was so clear, there would not be the thousands of contrasting interpretations. “Just reading the Bible” does not always provide clarity. Sometimes it provides comfort, sometimes it provides information, and sometimes it strikes you with a piercing Truth, but it does not give simple statements of single interpretation.

2. “it’s not a religion; it’s a relationship” I’ve written about this one before. If religion means legalism and relationship mean mysticism, then maybe, but instead of redefining words, I think it better to understand that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Religion is a good thing: dogma and creeds and liturgy and sacraments and tradition are all good things. What good is a relationship with no definition, no structure, no boundaries? And what good are those dogmas and creeds and liturgies and sacraments and traditions without sincerity, trust, and love? To say that religion needs a relational aspect is fair. To say that Christianity isn’t a religion is absurd. The phrase “It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship” itself is a creed. To think that Jesus is worthy of worship is a doctrine.  To have an hour of praise music followed by an hour of sermon and an altar call is liturgy. Religion is not a dirty word or a dirty practice.

3. “reconcile faith and science” This is another false dichotomy that even those who agree with me fall into. I don’t need to reconcile faith and science because they were never apart/opposed. Yes, I know about hyperliteralism, and I can tell you why I think it’s bad theology, bad historical criticism, and bad science, but I refuse to let a fundamentalist view that only arose in the late nineteenth century dictate the philosophy of my faith. Natural philosophy (science) can only be applied to the material. Other philosophies, such as ethics, apply to other aspects; existence is not limited to the science lab. And there is a vast overlap in the study of creation of the study of the relationship between creation and creator. Substance, cause, and nature are relevant to both theology and physical science. To separate the faith from the study of physical world denies how much matter, well, matters in religion (creation, incarnation, resurrection, new earth, sacraments, etc). To imply that they need reconciliation implies that they could ever be equal terms that oppose one another.

4. “neither adding nor taking away” This is more of the reductivism of “the Bible clearly says” that implies the terms of faith are clear and obvious to wants to understand. This phrase also makes the Bible the first, last, and only word on Christianity, ignoring oral and historical tradition. It’s often used to show distain for holidays like Christmas, beliefs like purgatory, or pretty much any part of liturgy. Interesting, the phrase itself comes from the commands in Deuteronomy. Christians and Jews have added a lot to their faith since the time of Moses; Christians much, much more so. Further, the phrase is often used by people with only 66 books in their canon and who do not follow the 613 commandments to the Jews, meaning they have both added and taken away.

5. “uninterrupted tradition” This is almost a response to the “neither adding nor taking away crowd” and usually comes from the Catholic and Orthodox side. Yes, we rely on Church tradition and we can trace doctrines to the Bible and Church Fathers. But while we like to pretend we’ve been consistent for 20 centuries, the truth is that religion develops and changes over time and through cultures. I believe the basics are still there (such as the creeds), but if a 3rd century Roman walked into a 21st century Latin mass, I don’t think they would immediately be on board. Tradition, just like the Bible, is important, but neither is static.

6. “going back to the early church” Maybe my problem with this phrase is more about the entire Restoration movement. But this phrase expresses several presumptions: 1. Christianity has moved significantly away from its origins in a negative way, and 2. a group has determined what the early church really intended, and 3. it is preferable to change back. Each of those need to be addressed fully before even having a conversation about going back to the early Church (however that is determined). Again, there is the idea that religion should be static. There is also the emphasis of stripping away centuries of scholarship and tradition. There should be a relationship and a continuation between the early Church and the modern Church, but there is no “going back.” You can’t undo the past.

7. “simple Christianity” Much like “clear” scripture, this assumes that the basics are all that count and that they are easily identifiable. I don’t think Christianity is simple. The disciples, who lived and talked with Jesus for three years, sure seemed confused a lot. The faith is complex in two ways. The first is that if you devote your life to actually loving God and loving your neighbor, life is full of sacrifice and hard work. It is difficult to stand up for the poor and marginalized and to risk your own security in order to build the kingdom. There is nothing simple in Christian charity. Sinning is easy; loving your enemies is not. Secondly, the religion is complex philosophy. There are questions and claims about who we are and why the universe is here and how we fit into a larger existence. There is the interaction of the Creator and his creation in tangible, forceful, mystical ways. If you think Christianity provides all the answers, then you aren’t asking the right questions. Some questions aren’t meant to be given simple answers. Rather, they are meant to be wrestled over, struggled through, lived with. And I guess that’s the biggest problem with religious conversations scattered with buzzwords and phrases: they ignore the real and necessary complexity of the faith.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Marian Mondays in May: Undoer of Knots

As I’ve expressed before, I’ve been a bit weary of the massive attachment some Catholics have to Mary. I’ve just never had that strong of a draw to her, but I do find her loving and interesting. And the whole New-Eve-bringing-forth-our-Savior-into-the-world thing was pretty rad. But since it’s May, which is a month often associated with Mary, I decided that each Monday in May will look at some of Mary’s titles that I really like.

The first is the Undoer (or Untier) of Knots. I’m picking this one first because I’m currently doing this novena. But it’s actually a rather late title attributed to Mary, based on a seventeenth century German painting in which, surprisingly, Mary is undoing knots. It’s such a basic, tangible representation of the saints’ intercessions. We take Mary our problems, and like any mother, she helps us. Maybe I relate to this title a lot because my own mother has many, many times gotten tiny knots out of my silver chain necklaces. The symbolism hits close to reality.

The painting, by Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner, also shows Mary stepping on the head of a knotted snake, which ever since I learned about it, I love images of Mary crushing the serpent. The world that Eve’s disobedience tangled up, Mary’s obedience sets straight again. The Undoer of Knots is one of Pope Francis’ favorite devotions.