(The Ephiphany) celebrates the end of man’s being held captive by the natural elements. We are not fated but free. None of us is pre-determined, but now made children of God by the humanity of his only divine Son.
God the Father (right) by Guercino (Giovan Francesco Barbieri)
The turn into the New Year 2014 occasions a fitting opportunity to reflect on the nature and purpose of time. Always honest, St. Augustine admits that he knows what time is … until someone asks him (Confessions 10.14.17: “What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who asks me, I do not know”). When Solath Sar (more commonly known as “Pol Pot” from the French, Politique Potentielle) emerged as the sole leader of Cambodia in 1975, among the first of his failed attempts at total revolution was to change that time back to the year zero. In his own deranged sense of things, he surmised that his advent into undisputed rule marked a radically new golden era. The same had happened in 1792 when the National Convention voted to make that year of their abolishing of the French Monarchy the year zero. There are both Nazis and die-hard Communists on record attempting the same rearranging of times and dates. The Jewish people have their calendars and the Muslims have theirs.
When did you stop celebrating our Lord’s Holy Nativity? Christmas should not have “officially” ended for most of us in the West until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (January 12, 2014). Instead of months of consumerism being followed by a quick morning of wrapping paper mayhem, the more thoughtful Christian is actually asked to prepare with four weeks of Advent, followed by weeks of celebrating the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord. Advent—as Lent will soon ask of us as well—attempts to slow God’s people down a bit by inviting them to focus on the great mystery that lies ahead. Such prayerfulness demands a daily commitment to interior silence, as well as an intellectual conversion toward the wonderful drama of God-made-man. In his 1948 classic—Leisure, the Basis of Culture—the German philosopher, Josef Pieper, argues that:
Leisure is a form of that stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality … Such stillness as this is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness; it means, rather, that the soul’s power, as real, of responding to the real—a co-respondence, eternally established in nature—has not yet descended into words. Leisure is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion in the real (St. Augustine’s Press, 1998; p. 31).
The more we prepare our souls to receive the Lord on any major feast, the more we are able to relish his actual coming and can, therefore, grow in holiness as we allow that very same mystery—the life and death of Christ—to be replicated in our own lives.
Yet, we Americans do not easily equate this time of year with stillness. However, in her liturgical cycle, the Church never tires of calling her children to moments of silence and times of celebration, times of fasting and of feasting. So, perhaps, we, who let Advent escape without much notice, could prepare ourselves even now to get ready for Lent’s arrival on March 5th. For when we allow the Church’s year, and not the world’s, to govern our celebrations, we encounter one more facet of the Church’s only goal, that of continuing Christ’s own incarnation in each of her sons and daughters.
On Epiphany each year, we should all have heard the singing or recitation of the Announcement of Easter and the Moveable Feasts for that coming year. This is an ancient practice, originally including civil dates, and astronomical data as well (begun well before the home calendar), ecclesially proclaimed so as to give the local community a sense of bearing and belonging:
Know, dear brothers and sisters,
that, as we have rejoiced at the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ,
so by leave of God’s mercy
we announce to you also the joy of his Resurrection,
who is our Savior.
On the fifth day of March will fall Ash Wednesday,
and the beginning of the fast of the most sacred Lenten season.
On the twentieth day of April you will celebrate with joy Easter Day,
the Paschal feast of our Lord Jesus Christ.
On the twenty-ninth day of May will be the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.
On the eighth day of June, the feast of Pentecost.
On the twenty-second day of June, the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.
On the thirtieth day of November, the First Sunday of the Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ,
to whom is honor and glory for ever and ever.
Reviving the liturgical calendar has been a great gift of the past couple of generations—the fuller lectionary and readings from the Divine Office aim to show even more of the Church’s inexhaustible treasury. Through such means, Christ relies on his Church to calibrate the human heart to himself—giving his people four Sundays to prepare for his coming visibly in the flesh; giving his people weeks thereafter in which to savor the beauty of this new life, the beauty of our new life.
In this “Year A” of Sunday readings, we shall be hearing the Gospel of Matthew. Perhaps, the Spirit is nudging you to spend some time during the week to prepare for the upcoming Gospel proclamation. If so, allow me to recommend three excellent commentaries on what the Church Fathers almost unanimously believed was the first and earliest Gospel.
- The first is quite brief, and very accessible, and comes from the leading Christian apologist today, Dr. Scott Hahn of the Franciscan University of Steubenville: The Gospel of Matthew: Commentary, Notes and Study Questions, Ignatius Press, 2000— http://www.amazon.com/The-Gospel-Matthew-Commentary-Questions/dp/0898708176/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1388888439&sr=8-3&keywords=catholic+commentary+on+matthew.
- A more extensive collection, likewise, comes from Ignatius Press: Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew by Dr. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis—now Brother Simeon—http://www.amazon.com/Fire-Mercy-Heart-Word-Meditations/dp/0898705584/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1388888439&sr=8-2&keywords=catholic+commentary+on+matthew.
- The third commentary I would recommend is by a great group of evangelical Catholic scholars, led by Dr. Ed Sri, Curtis Mitch and Dr. Mary Healy, simply entitled The Gospel of Matthew (http://www.amazon.com/Gospel-Matthew-Catholic-Commentary- cripture/dp/080103602X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1388888439&sr=8-1&keywords=catholic+commentary+on+matthew).
As we enter the movement of the liturgical year, we do so with only one purpose in mind: to become the living extensions of Christ’s advent—he is coming into the world still today. No human is incapable of this kind of divine mystery, of continuing Christ’s own life throughout every place and time. For this God came into the world, for this Christ founded his Church and his sacraments, for which absolutely no other purpose than to magnify his own beauty, grace, wisdom, forgiveness and love.
As I write this, we are all preparing for the great Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord. This is the day that all of creation—Jews, Gentiles, and even the elements themselves—realize that God now dwells among us, and for all of us. While ever faithful to his chosen people, today God’s human face turns toward all universally, truly revealing himself as catholicos!
Here in St. Louis, we are currently under one of the biggest blizzards in decades, certainly of this century. The drive to the Children’s Hospital, and then to the retirement home where I celebrate Mass every Sunday morning, took at least three times longer today. With many Christian communities cancelling worship services, however, there is a great fittingness to the Mass being celebrated in such inclement weather on Epiphany (as of 8 a.m. today, not one Catholic Church had cancelled Mass). This day celebrates the end of man’s being held captive by the natural elements. We are not fated but free. None of us is pre-determined, but now made children of God by the humanity of his only divine Son. This is precisely what Pope Emeritus Benedict was getting at when he wrote how,
… at the very moment when the Magi, guided by the star, adored Christ the new king, astrology came to an end, because the stars were now moving in the orbit determined by Christ (the Holy Father is taking this from Gregory Nazianzen’s Dogmatic Poems, 5.53-64). This scene, in fact, overturns the world-view of that time, which in a different way has become fashionable once again today. It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs the stars, that is, the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love—a Person. And if we know this Person and he knows us, then truly the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free (Spe Salvi §5).
The early Christian cosmogonies argued that all of creation was made for the sake of the Church, for the communal worship and glory of God (“The world was created for the sake of the Church”, Shepherd of Hermas, vision 2.4.1 as in CCC §760)—this includes time as well.
Time is one of the first created goods offered to us by our loving Father. Because we are immersed in it, however, we often forget that time is a creature, and like all of creation, its ultimate purpose is to lift us to God. This is why God’s Church gives us the liturgical calendar, inviting us to consecrate not only the year and the seasons therein, but each day (e.g., the Morning Offering, the Evening Examination of Conscience, the Angelus at 6 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m., etc. …) and moment. As the purple of Advent gives way to the white of Christmas, next comes the verdant green of tempus per annum, tempus ordinarium—what is better referred to as “ordered” instead of “ordinary” time. God saves the world by assuming to himself the fullness of humanity. Because we are surrounded by his “humanity,” however, we can, all too often, take it for granted, snub it, exploit it, and turn away from it. We can unfortunately do the same with time. Let us begin this year calling to mind that, in Christ, nothing is “ordinary,” and that all times and movements can bring us in ever-closer union with Love incarnate.
FYI to our readers:
We are pleased to announce that Fr. David Meconi, S.J., has been named “Augustine Fellow” this year at Villanova University’s Augustine Institute. He will continue as editor for HPR during his fellowship at Villanova. The staff wishes him all the best!