Down through the centuries, the Christmas narrative has been told and re-told, yet we never tire of it. Why not? First, because the story has no limit to its message of beauty, truth, and goodness. It is always inspirational. Second, each time we ourselves approach the story we have changed a little; we find something new in the gospel narrative, and there we find new graces to bolster our lives in Christ. This is why this mystery of the Nativity of the Lord has been the subject for artists of all ages.Christmas CustomsLike Advent traditions, Christmas customs, such as the Christmas crib, should be explained to children: St. Francis of Assisi popularized the crèche scene on Christmas Eve in 1223. Mistletoe was a sacred plant of the Druids and symbolized good luck and happiness. The holly branch symbolizes Mary’s heart filled with a flaming love for God. The origin of the Christmas tree combines two medieval religious symbols: the Paradise Tree and the Christmas Light. Christ as the Christmas light finds expression in a candle that is placed in the window to symbolize Christ the Light of the world. The home of the poinsettia is in Central America. It resembles the star of Bethlehem. In Mexico, it is called the “Flower of the Night.” Laurel wreaths are a custom of ancient Rome and symbolize a friendly greeting, victory, and joy of a celebration. The Christmas pageant helps children to reenact the first Christmas and to pay homage to the Infant King. Origin of the Song “Twelve Days of Christmas”We are all familiar with the song, “Twelve Days of Christmas.” The carol has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to Catholics of the time. Each element in the carol has a code word for a Catholic religious reality, which the children could remember:“On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree. The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ.“On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two turtle doves. Two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments. The fun of the song is to repeat the previous number and its lyrics–all in one deep breath!“On the third of day of Christmas, my true love gave to me three French hens. “Three French hens stood for faith, hope and love.”“On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me four calling birds.“The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.“On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me five golden rings. “The five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.“On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me six geese a-laying. The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.“On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me seven swans a-swimming. Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge piety, and fear of the Lord.“On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eight maids a-milking. The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes.“On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me nine ladies dancing. Nine ladies dancing were the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.“On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ten lords a-leaping. The ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments.“On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eleven pipers piping. The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples.“On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me twelve drummers drumming. The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in The Apostles’ Creed. So here is our Christmas history lesson to ponder for these next several Christmas days.A happy and blessed Christmas to you and to your loved ones!
The mystery of evil has struck again. This time in a lovely elementary school where all good things are taken for granted – safety, the wonder of learning, play time, the laughter of innocent children with their classmates and teachers. Suddenly, the beauty of it all, shattered and mutilated within minutes. Last Friday’s massacre in Newtown, Conn. leaves a grief-stricken nation to gasp in horror, to ponder its inscrutable savagery, and to fall on its knees in prayer. Through sobbing and loud lamentation, we plead for consolation for the families of those children and teachers as well as for ourselves and our nation.Suffering, whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual, does violence to the person, to groups of people, and now to a nation. Suffering comes from us and others, from places, events, and unfulfilled expectations.Why are innocent people weighed down by tragedy? Who of us dares give facile answers to its universal and ubiquitous presence? To whom shall we go for answers?Grave suffering, in the way it has just unfolded, re-arranges the whole of one’s life. As the nation grieves, the invitation comes to grow in compassion, wisdom, and love.Questions about suffering inevitably lead to questions about God. Where is God in suffering? A powerful and all-loving God would not permit suffering to happen.Therefore, God must be a sadist or an impotent entity. Such inescapable questions haunt persons of faith and those of no faith because they affect us at the very core of daily living. They struck us on Dec. 14, 2012. We all have free will to do good or evil. And God will not paralyze or remove our free will.Yet, even in dark hours, we do sense a ray of light in the darkness that holds meaning for us. In the face of despair, Christian hope is possible only in the light of redemption, for when Jesus comes, he comes as absolute love that identifies itself with suffering and with the sufferers of the world. He is suffering in solidarity with us now. The “O Antiphons”Even while the end of the Advent preparation and Christmastide offer rich meditations for the season, the prayers given below are intensified with deeper meaning in the wake of the tragedy at Newtown. The exclamations beginning with “O” in the antiphon-prayers found below are grace-filled for all occasions. They express the longing of the human heart for all good things whether for us or our families. The “O” antiphons for each day from Dec. 17 to 24 read as follows:Dec. 17: O Wisdom, You came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and reaching from beginning to end, You ordered all things mightily and sweetly. Come, and teach us the way of prudence! Dec. 18: “O Adonai (God of the covenant) and Rule of the house of Israel, You appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, and on Mount Sinai gave him Your Law: Come, and with an outstretched arm redeem us!”Dec. 19: “O Root of Jesse, you stand for an ensign of mankind; before You kings shall keep silence, and to You all nations shall have recourse. Come, save us, and do not delay.”Dec. 20: “O Key of David and Scepter of the house of Israel: You open and no man closes; You close and no man opens. Come, and deliver him from the chains of prison who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death.”Dec. 21: ‘O Rising Dawn, Radiance of the Light eternal and Sun of Justice; come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”Dec. 22: “O King of the Gentiles and the Desired of all, You are the cornerstone that binds two (the Jews and Gentiles) into one: Come, and save poor man whom You fashioned out of clay.” Dec. 23: “O Emmanuel (God with us), our King and Lawgiver, the expected of nations and their Savior: Come, and save us, O Lord our God!” Dec. 24: Psalm 23: “Lift up your gates, ye princes, and open wide, ye eternal gates; the King of majesty will enter in.”The Feast of the Holy Innocents during Christmas WeekThe tragedy at Newton, so close to Christmas week, faintly resembles the Holy Innocents mentioned in St. Matthew’s gospel (2:13-18). On Dec. 28, the Church commemorates the feast of the Holy Innocents when King Herod arranged for the slaughter of baby boys below the age of two. It was his order to do away with the Messiah, his rival-king, and with the mass killing, he made certain that no male infant who could be the Messiah would survive. The hymn at Lauds on this day serves not only to recall the massacre of those holy innocents but also the slaughter of the children and their teachers at Newton:“All hail! Ye infant martyr flowersCut off in life’s first dawning hours,As rosebuds snaps in tempest strifeWhen Herod sought your Savior’s life.”These are solemn days in our nation. As the Catholic liturgical calendar unfolds, our national mourning finds expression in the liturgical drama of the feast of the Holy Innocents.
You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your relatives. So goes the saying. The Matthean gospel (1:1-17) lists the names of Jesus’ ancestors but does not go into detail about them.
Some years ago, the award-winning comic strip by Johnny Hart featured a piece about the mystery of the Incarnation, though it did not mention the phrase.
As 2012 draws to a close, the new year of grace begins this Sunday with the season of Advent, the four weeks before the Christmas season. The year of grace assures God’s providential care ever present and active in our world. But God’s work must truly be our own, President Kennedy reminded us.
Some years ago, a professor of Philosophy 101 asked his students to evaluate the course at the end of the final exam. “Philosophy taught me absolutely nothing,” wrote a student, “except how to think.”Beauty of the MindIt’s easy to take the mind for granted. At an early age, children express themselves with subtle curiosity and with a keen sense of wonder. The word ‘why’ becomes fixed in their vocabulary. Animals are incapable of asking ‘why.’ A parrot can repeat words but can’t appreciate beauty. As children mature into young adulthood, these spiritual faculties are essential to their future wellbeing as individuals and as citizens.“The mind governs everything,” writes A.D. Sertillanges, O.P. “It begins, accomplishes, perseveres, finally achieves. When the thinker thinks rightly, he follows God step by step; he does not follow his own vain fancy.” The thinking person values silence in order to listen to oneself and to God. “Reason ambitions only a world; faith gives it infinity.” (“The Intellectual Life,” 1)The intellect seeks truth. “I think, therefore I am.” This brainy phrase can be used to impress. Popularized by René Descartes, this dictum is more precisely rendered in two ways: (1) “I am, therefore I think.” One must exist before one thinks; (2) “I am thought of, therefore I am.” This version claims more depth than the previous two. It contains wisdom and truth. From eternity, every man and woman has first existed in God’s thought. Therefore, we come into existence with purpose. A high civilization depends on a nation committed to truth, the result of right thinking.These brain teasers may be summed up in Robert Bolt's play, “A Man for All Seasons.” In it, Thomas More urges his daughter Meg to think things through, clearly and carefully, thereby avoiding the mandatory Oath of Supremacy issued by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century.“God made the angels to show him splendorAs he made animals for innocenceAnd plants for their simplicity.But to man, he gave an intellectto serve him wittily in the tangle of his mind.”For the beauty of the mind, we give thanks to God.For Fruits of the Earth, We Give ThanksIn 1789, George Washington called for a national day of thanks on Thursday, November 26th. The feast as we know it today is due to the efforts of Sarah Joseph Hale of Boston and other women who saw themselves as the protectors of men and the promoters of social stability. From 1827 onward, as the editor of the “Godey's Ladies Book,” Hale's editorial page urged her readers to set aside a day each year to thank God for their blessings. In 1941, Congress officially declared Thanksgiving Day a legal holiday on the fourth Thursday in November. (Burt Wolf, “Taste of Freedom: Thanksgiving”)And so, the day gives us pause to count our blessings as did the Pilgrims at their first harvest in the New World. Our blessings are countless. In addition to the beauty of nature and the marvel of the intellect, our God-given rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are blessings guaranteed in our Declaration of Independence.The link between dining, the fruits of the earth, and gratitude is plainly and visibly seen when men and women have a meal together. A prayer of thanks is closely linked to a meal because it implies dependence on creation. On Thanksgiving Day, we acknowledge that, in this harvest feast, the earth does the giving, and we, the receiving.Catholics are double receivers because of the Eucharistic meal, a gift beyond measure. Therefore, thanksgiving is the very basis of conduct, and for Catholics, an essential part of our lives.Feast of Christ the KingOn this Thanksgiving weekend, the Church celebrates the feast of Christ our King. Not only does the feast complete the current liturgical year, but also anticipates the new year of grace for the liturgical year, which begins next week with the First Sunday in Advent.On the feast of Christ our King, the Church professes that Jesus Christ is the world's salvation, the shepherd-king who lays down His life for His sheep. (Jn 10:1-30) He is the Father's gift to humankind, and our minimal response is gratitude for his coming among us to assume our human condition in all things but sin. St. Peter captures the meaning of the feast when Jesus asks if he wants to leave his friendship. “Lord, to whom shall we go,” replies Peter, “you have the words of eternal life.” (Jn 6:68)Why has the Church's celebration of Christ the King assumed a new urgency? In 1925, Pope Pius XI proclaimed this feast to overcome the prevailing errors of the time of materialism, secularism, and relativism. Today, unbelief, religious indifference, and a neo-paganism have been added to the list. Taken all together, they pose a direct assault on a moral and a Christian way of living. Disaffected Catholics have left the Church only to ally themselves with at least one of these isms.Our culture has grown secular and Christophobic. While spewing the name Jesus Christ in anger or rage fails to raise an eyebrow, it has been banished in polite company. Most conversations barely tolerate mention of God.The Call to DiscipleshipJesus is described as an exceedingly attractive, human, and charismatic person, as handsome as a man can be, as an apt commentary on Ps 45:2 says, “you are the fairest of the sons of men; grace is poured out upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you for ever.” Jesus calls his disciples to share in his life and mission (Mt 4:18-22); the Galilean women followed him spontaneously. (Lk 8:1) Out of their own resources, they looked after Jesus and the Twelve without counting the cost. The call to follow him continues to goes out to all and to each, personally and in particular.Ambassadors for ChristIn Early Christianity, it was a crime to attend the celebration of the Eucharist. Such activity rejected the pagan cult of the state and was outlawed under pain of death. But the Early Christians could not live without the Eucharist which gave meaning to their lives. They held fast to their weekly worship and met together, kept vigil from Saturday night until Sunday morning, and celebrated the Eucharist.Against the attack on Christianity, the feast of Christ the King boldly affirms the sovereignty and rule of Christ over persons, families, human society, the state, and the entire universe. In particular, the feast affirms the messianic kingship of Christ won through his self-emptying death on the cross. Great figures in history have built a better world, but none of them claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the life.” Neither did any claim to be God’s Son and the redeemer of the world. The feast bids all men and women, and particularly Catholics, to find meaning and hope in him who is the power of God. Each of us is an “ambassador for Christ,” (2 Cor 5:20) as is suggested by Gerard Manley Hopkins:“. . .The just man justices;Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is – Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not hisTo the Father through the features of men's faces.”Jesus Heals Ten LepersTen lepers came to Jesus for healing. (Lk 17:11-19) The nine who were cured went on their way as ingrates. Only the one recognized the transformative power of God’s healing, and he thanked the Master. Jesus was offended and said so: “Weren't ten healed? Where are the other nine!” Where are we?
Hurricane Sandy and a snow storm are testing the endurance of North Easterners who are coping with their aftermath. Not only neighbors but also relief workers from all over the country have given generously of themselves and by way of offering food, shelter, and clothing – all to help in the long recovery ahead of them.Amid fear, anger, and frustration, the needy recipients have expressed heartfelt thanks to one and all. Such is the uncanny link between food, thanksgiving, and unselfish care for others.We Say ‘Blessing’ and ‘Thank you’You can never say thank-you enough, the Jews learned from their Exodus experience. Their Passover meal, celebrated in a hurry, was filled with praise and thanksgiving for the wonders God did in rescuing them from slavery in Egypt.To Be a Jew …Every Jew participates in the Passover feast as though the Lord God had personally delivered each person from slavery: “In every generation each Jew looks upon himself as though he, personally, was among those who went forth from Egypt. Not our fathers alone did the Holy One redeem from suffering, but also us and our families.” (Haggadah for the American Family) To be a Jew is to celebrate the Passover and forever seal the Covenant between YHWH and the Chosen People:On every Sabbath, Jewish prayer blesses and gives thanks to God. These psalms of blessing and thanksgiving were prayed daily, but in the Passover banquet, they held a special significance.As the Chosen People, the Jews accepted the Covenant which encompassed the whole life of the nation and the individual, every aspect of prayer, observation, and work. Every thought, activity, and deed was an act of fidelity and love. The act of worship was simple in its origin, yet pure and vital – a political, liturgical and personal bond. Here the people were united in a national and religious act.In the musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye, a devout Russian Jew, the husband of a nagging wife and the father of five daughters, is weighed down by abject poverty and family worries. With his lame horse, he pushes his wagon along in the field, looks up to heaven with arched eyebrow, and wryly tells God: “I know that we are the Chosen People, but once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?” Still, he continues to bless and thank God.The Passover of the LordJesus’ last celebration of the Passover began like the others. However, on this night, a substantial change took place. The meal was no ordinary feast but a drama and a crucial turning point in world history. The words Jesus spoke have become the hallmark of Catholic faith.He took and blessed the life-blood of the Jews symbolized by unleavened bread and the wine – the one, symbolizing the bread of affliction, the manna of the desert, and the other, symbolizing the blood of the slaughtered lamb. (Ex 12:8) He inserted new words accompanying the action giving new meaning and content to the ceremony. When he broke the bread and said: “This is my body … ” he shared the sacred food with the Twelve. At the third cup of wine, the cup of blessing and consecration, Jesus declared: “This is the cup of my blood … ” He gave it to them to drink.The Motif: Food, Blessing, Thanksgiving, and Loving ServiceIn Early Christianity, Eucharistic worship assumed the rite that the Lord instituted on the evening before his passion The Early Christian community referred to it as both “the breaking of the bread” (Acts 2:42) and the “Eucharist” or thanksgiving.We eat in order to live. We become what we eat. Bread is the staff of life and wine, part of a meal.Jesus shocks the Jewish leaders by declaring: “I am the bread of life … If any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and abides in me and I in him.” (Jn 6:51, 54, 56)The notion of consuming human sacrifice, a grossly repellent practice to human decency, was forbidden in the Law. But instead of moderating his words, Jesus only intensified the ultra-realistic verb trogein (Gr: to crunch, to gnaw); Jesus used the crude word four times in this instruction. (vv 54, 56, 57, 58) The verb connotes both the state of being torn to pieces and the mandate to consume the sacrifice. (W. Dewan, “The Eucharist,” New Catholic Encyclopedia 5:603-04) Eucharist means giving thanks (eucharistia), and we give thanks for the Eucharistic food, God’s gift of his Son.Natural food perishes, but his food is the condition for life in God: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him.” (Jn 6:54-56) Jesus understands the relationship between eating and having life: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (Jn 6:22) Consuming his food is the condition for life in God because it sustains an energy motivated by love and for growth in the Spirit. Though rooted in the Passover meal, this new ritual transcends it.‘I Could Eat You Up Alive’Among our phrases of endearment we have the phrase, “I could eat you up alive.” It is most often reserved for an infant when a parent wishes to express inexpressible love for his or her child. This metaphor says more about the desire for intimate union between parent and child than the words themselves convey. It lends vividness to the fact that, as the bread of life, Jesus wants to unite himself to us, and we to him and to one another. Jesus has been placed at our disposal to be taken and incorporated into our very beings. We become what we eat.Why Does Jesus Wash Peter’s Feet?The washing of the feet is a central part of the Lord’s Supper. The meal becomes a lasting memorial of Jesus’ love and the context for a lesson the Apostles will not forget. The washing of feet was the typical task of a slave. Why, Peter asks, does the Master insist on washing his feet? He recoils, but Jesus admonishes him: “If I do not wash you, you will have no part in me.” (Jn 13:8) Peter is free to refuse, but Jesus presses for his consent. (The Von Balthasar Reader, 286)If Peter wants to unite himself with his Master, then he must renounce status and all that is associated with status – glory, power, and prestige. The Lord will choose a servile but loving act to give the example. Peter realizes that what Jesus has done for and to him, he Peter must repeat to and for others. He too must share in the Lord’s redemptive work for the sake of others. (Ibid, 288) Henceforth, the mandate given to Peter will be the loving service that marks Christian discipleship. It is so explicit that it cannot be misunderstood or misinterpreted. The Eucharist opens the door that leads to unselfish love.The Eucharist: A Centrifugal ForceThe Eucharist is like the sun’s centrifugal force whose rays are thrust outward to warm and light the universe. Nourishment supreme begins and ends with the Eucharist. Thanksgiving par excellence begins and ends in the Eucharist. Unselfish love begins in the Eucharist but radiates outward with no limit. Such is the uncanny relationship between food, thanksgiving, and serving others.It is from the dismissal “Go, in the peace of Christ” that one grasps the relationship between the liturgy and mission to the world. This dismissal, “Ite, missa est,” implies “mission,” succinctly expressing the missionary nature of the Church. In fact, the dismissal is a starting point from which every person brings nourishment, blessing and thanksgiving, and service to others. (Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, #51)A Eucharistic WorldEucharistic worship sends out the Eucharistic person to a world that cries out for nourishment, both physical and spiritual, for thanksgiving, and for unselfish care.Mission, wherever and however it is carried out, emerges from the Eucharist, its starting point. Why go to the font and source of life? God shows the way to men and women. In the Eucharist, the calculating psyche needs to silence itself and listen to God speak.
For the past few weekends, “Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly” on PBS has featured a mini-series entitled, “None of the Above: The Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated.” The documentary report was conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum in conjunction with PBS.
At the time of his death in 2008, Avery Cardinal Dulles was considered the first among American theologians. The search for truth led this agnostic to the Catholic faith in his senior year at Harvard. After serving as a naval officer, he became a Jesuit priest. Avery Dulles was no liturgist, but as a complete theologian, he could boast – but didn’t – of a refined sense of the arts, especially in regard to the liturgy.Among his prodigious writings, his short article, “The Ways We Worship,” exemplifies his writing style – clear, crisp, concise, and coherent. It was published in First Things (March, 1998) and was taken from a talk he gave to liturgists in 1997. With his quick ability to size up persons, things, and events, Dulles goes to the heart of the neuralgic topic, the ways we worship. The whole of theology is found in details, and the details point to the whole.“Liturgy,” he writes, “is the principal bond between the earthly and the heavenly Church, a frail human participation in the glorious heavenly liturgy.” (28) The prime purpose of worship is to glorify God. And, the ways we worship flash red within the Church.The Lowly CommaCardinal Dulles intoned his words. If you weren’t attentive to his homilies or lectures, you could miss his droll, understated humor delivered with a Lincoln-esque straight face. A case in point. In “The Ways We Worship,” Dulles speaks of “two opposed tendencies in liturgical piety in the Latin Rite: the transcendent view and this-worldly view.” Then he explains. Some years ago, while making his thanksgiving after Mass in a parish church, he noticed a banner hanging from the pulpit which read: “God is other people.” He thought at the time: “If I had had a magic marker within reach, I would not have been able to resist the temptation to insert a comma after the word “other.” (28) The two forms of the inscription, with and without comma, “sum up the two tendencies.” The lowly comma distinguishes the two ways in which we worship.Prior to his exposition of his remarks, Dulles cautions that he is drawing the contrast in bald terms, “verging on caricature, while recognizing that less extreme positions are more normal” (Ibid). In distinguishing these two views below, View A designates that of the transcendent and otherworldly view, and View B, that of the earthbound and this-worldly view. Views A and B differentiate themselves in ecclesiology, Christology, liturgical theology, and the sacred arts.View A. The Transcendent, Otherworldly ViewView A holds that the Eucharist makes the Church. Often referred to as theology ‘from above,’ liturgy is made in heaven. There are no substantial changes to it. Liturgy is God’s gift and invitation to the Body of Christ, and the faithful receive what the liturgy has to offer. (28) The order of the ceremony is entrusted to a divinely ordained hierarchical priesthood, which has responsibility for the strict observance of the prescribed rites.” (29) Sacraments are efficacious, ex opere operato. Because the ritual is sacred and inviolable, the faithful must adapt themselves to the liturgy rather than adapt the ritual to their tastes, interests, or capacities. The celebration should elicit a sense of awe in the presence of the holy, for God is remote and transcendent. (28)View A favors formality in the liturgy and values the continuity of tradition not for its own sake but for the unity of the Church. Here tradition is understood not as a set of rigid outdated practices, but rather as “the Church’s self-consciousness now of that which has been handed on to her not as an inert treasure but as a dynamic inner life” (Robert F. Taft “Beyond East and West,” ix). View A holds to the distinction between clerical priesthood and the priesthood of the laity which in turn affects the church architecture and the use of sacred space. View A holds that “modern Catholics are disgusted by the tasteless experience and pedestrian language currently in use.” (29)View B. This Earthbound and This-Worldly ViewView B holds that the Church makes the Eucharist. Theology is ‘from below.’ The liturgy is produced by the people. View B is repelled by a petrified hieratic liturgy that sees the Church as separate from the modern world (Ibid). It accuses View A of having canonized the past by turning the Church into a museum piece. Instead, worship must be made relevant to the actual situation. The liturgy is a matter of feeling and self-expression. (28) It favors creativity and spontaneity and is disinclined to favor tradition. (29)View B holds that there should be as little distinction as possible between clerical priesthood and that of the faithful, between sanctuary and nave, between heaven and the world, expressed through liturgical space, art, architecture, and music. Here there is new emphasis on the People of God, a phrase that is preferred to the phrase, Body of Christ.A Word about Tradition and the LiturgyFor Dulles, tradition is the living past; it binds together past and future. There is a big difference between tradition, “the living faith of the dead” and traditionalism, “the dead faith of the living,” to quote Jaroslav Pelican, a Protestant theologian. According to Dom Prosper Guéranger, a founder of the modern liturgical movement, “the liturgy is tradition itself, at its highest power and solemnity.” Though the liturgy does not coincide with the entirety of the Christian life, the whole life of the Christian should be permeated by the spirit of the liturgy.” (30)With his typically balanced approach, Dulles summarizes his article with several corollaries from what has already been said about the liturgy:1-3. Liturgy is God’s gift to which attention must be directed. The Holy Spirit is to be invoked.4. Making use of its symbolic resources, liturgy should arouse a keen awareness of the truths of faith. This involves rituals, vestments, sacred song, and periods of silence. (33)5. Liturgy calls for participation that strengthens the faith of the worshipers. (33)6. Liturgy should be marked by stability, not be changed without real and manifest necessity and not be static. Adaptation does not mean that everything should be stated in plain vernacular English or conducted in a tone of familiarity. Attention to the laws of worship may require a certain formality in style and language somewhat removed from ordinary speech. The need to evoke the sense of the sacred may also call for types of chant not heard in secular situations. (33)7. Because liturgy, like tradition in general, is a living reality, no one stage of its development should be absolutized. (33)8. The existing liturgy provides no lack of room for creativity, rightly understood. The choice of music, the preparation of the liturgical space, the composition of the homily and the intercessions all place heavy demands on the talents of those concerned. Spontaneity in formal liturgical celebrations should, however, be kept within bounds. Liturgy, as the chief embodiment of perennial tradition, should convey a sense of the objective, the constant, and the universal. (33)Dulles keeps Views A and B in a delicate balance: “God is neither other people nor does he dwell in remote seclusion.” (34)Personal ObservationsWhenever an official or public event is celebrated at the White House, for example, protocol and good form enjoy priority over other concerns. The formal atmosphere, visuals, music – all details, are guided by good taste to realize the purpose of the event. Good taste is expressed as public courtesy, aesthetic reserve, un-spontaneity, and modest decor. The ceremony must proceed smoothly.Similarly, when the Church celebrates the liturgy, reserve, protocol, and proportion are expected. Liturgical good taste forbids coarseness, vulgarity, and showiness in the service. Bad taste lacks finesse and dignity. It wallows in excess. Where a lack of proportion exists between form and depth, and between content and presentation, bad taste is near. (Charles-Damian Boulogne, “My Friends, the Senses,” 143) Despite the virtual disappearance of courtesy in public, good taste, and good form are indispensable at worship. Bad taste in liturgy, tasteless liturgy, these keep people away from Sunday Mass.Benedict XVI: “The Church Tearing Herself Apart”Benedict XVI has taken a dim view of the postconciliar liturgy. For him, it has produced an attitude of opposition within the Church – a partisan and opposing church tearing herself apart. At issue, is that the faithful have become the church, and they are celebrating themselves, “an activity that is utterly fruitless.” (“A New Song for the Lord,” 142)“[What] we are experiencing today,” he laments, “is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy which at times has even come to be conceived of etsi Deus non daretur, (that is, the liturgy has even come to be celebrated as if there were no God.” (“Milestones: Memoirs 1927-77,” p. 149)
May and October are like sisters. Mother Nature bids them don their seasonal colors, the one in spring green and fine florals, and the other in autumnal leaves of olive green, gold, maize, and burnt sienna gracefully falling to the ground. In these two months, Mother Nature treats the senses to an array of beauty. And we participate in her gift to us.
In 1535, Henry VIII had Sir Thomas More beheaded for refusing to take the mandatory Oath of Supremacy blessing Henry’s marriage to his mistress Ann Boleyn. Years before, Leo X had given “the Defender of the Faith,” a dispensation to marry Catherine of Aragon, the young widow of his brother Arthur. Almost twenty years later, Henry sought a dispensation from the dispensation. Clement VII refused his request.Determined to have his way, Henry usurped papal authority and forced the realm to accept his newly-acquired power. Apart from More, Bishop John Fisher, and several Carthusian monks and friars, most took the mandatory Oath of Supremacy. The few resisters were hunted down like animals. Henry’s demand for a divorce was assured as well as the radical revision of Canon Law. With his dissolution of the monasteries, Catholic England ceased to exist.A Genuine Though Imperfect HolinessThe Church in England needed reform. Thomas More never denied this, but he grasped a key and core principle. The Church’s holiness and moral authority were measured not by the holiness of its leaders, though this was highly desirable, if not expected. He believed in the Church’s holiness because of the invisible yet real and abiding presence of the Holy Spirit as its lifeblood. Jesus had assured the Twelve that the Father would send the Spirit to guide, counsel, and console them in the truth.The Church’s holiness emerges from its creed, sacramental life, and moral standards. The visible Church is imperfect, but inwardly, the Church of the Spirit is holy. The members are limited, fallible, and often quite sinful in full gaze of the public. This is why the Body needs reform (ecclesia semper reformanda est) so that it can enjoy proper spiritual health. The reformanda never ends.In the sixteenth century, the sinfulness within the Church posed a problem for Martin Luther, as it did for many others. The issue was not new. A millennium before Luther’ protest, a sect, the Donatists, demanded that the sacraments be administered only by those clergy judged to have the highest and most rigorous standards of holiness. The issue came down to two theological principles: the term ex opere operato (from the work done) and ex opere operantis (from the work of the doer). The former applied specifically to the theology of the sacraments to emphasize that, since God is the chief agent of the sacrament, it can never fail to produce the effect promised in Christ, if it is celebrated under the proper conditions. The second term refers to the actions or merits of the minister or recipients of the sacraments, in contrast to God’s own action in and through the sacraments. The emphasis here rests on the importance of the inner dispositions of human beings.Today, Catholics expect the formal principle, that of the Holy Spirit, to override the Church’s subjective imperfections. The objective holiness of the Church is a substantive difference between Catholics and Protestants.Ideal Catholicism and Its ActualityLiving out the Catholic faith lags behind ideal Catholicism. In fact, there has never been a time when the Church has been without stain of sin. Why the disparity between the ideal and the actual?First, God’s revelation is necessarily accepted in a limited way when brought to the human and the temporal. Wherever the human condition is, there you have limited, narrow, and fallible judgment. But More, Fisher, monks, and friars? All martyrs supreme! At the very end, like More, each could protest with clear mind and pure heart: “I die the king’s good servant but God’s first.”Average people either reveal God’s truth and grace to the world or conceal or profane it. God has guaranteed that the Church will not fall into error regarding faith or morals, but this guarantee does not extend to every act and decision of church authority. “Reflective Catholics,” writes Karl Adam, “must feel and be pained by the conflict which arises out of the contrast between the sublimity, depth, and power of divine revelation and the weakness of the human, too-human factor” (“The Spirit of Catholicism,” 242ff).Today through sin and vice, “Christ as he is realized in human history is dragged through the dust of the street, through the commonplace and the trivial, and over masses of rubbish. That is the deepest tragedy, the very tragedy of the Divine, when it is dispensed by unworthy hands and received by unworthy lips” (Ibid, 250). In short, the perfect revelation of God rests in the hands of God’s imperfect instruments.Second, the Church, as a visible society, encounters problems of authority and human liberty. Clashes occur between individual charism and personal choice and formal structure, Church law. Though the Church prohibits blind faith and merely external conformity, every Catholic – pope, bishop, priest, consecrated religious, or lay person, is inwardly bound to obey the authoritative teaching of the Church, which echoes the preaching of Jesus. Spontaneous and independent spirit needs structure, and structure needs charism, “the flow of life and experience if it is not little by little to become rigid and crusted over” (Ibid). We are the Church of Peter and Paul; we are the Church of structure and of charism.Who Is the Holy Spirit?The Holy Spirit is properly referred to as ‘spirit.’ The word means ‘wind, breathing, breath.’ In its secondary meaning, it refers to the sign of life. When Jesus breathed his last breath, he breathed forth his Spirit, who came formally on Pentecost.The Holy Spirit is God’s own Self who gives life to the world. It was the Spirit of God who breathed over creation as it evolved into the history of salvation. The Holy Spirit is the creative power and the source of beauty in the world. God’s Spirit flourishes “wherever something new arises, whenever life is awakened and reality reaches ecstatically beyond itself, in all seeking and striving, in every ferment and birth, and even more in the beauty of creation.” (Walter Kasper, “The God of Jesus Christ,” 227)“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil.Crushed.” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)Our AdvocateThe Spirit is our Advocate (Greek: parakletos). Now an advocate is the legal term for a defense attorney, the moral force who is called to help someone in need of counsel and who imparts wisdom and fortitude in us. The Spirit comforts and consoles, supports, prods, protects, pleads, and intercedes for us before the Father. (1 Jn 2:1) Our Advocate is our personal Gift and our personal Giver of gifts.The Spirit-Advocate also serves as the jury and judge. Upholding the truth (Jn 16:9), our Advocate teaches us right from wrong and helps us interpret the glamour of sin and the deceits of Satan “who prowls about disguised as an angel of light.” (2 Cor11:14;1 Jn 4:1)Where is the Spirit? The Spirit is at work always and everywhere leading us forward to the eternal, always seeking new ways of bringing forth new fruit. (Jn 16:13)The Creator-Spirit in a Spiritless Age“Why do men then now not reck his rod?Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soilIs bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”Nihilism “is perhaps the most profound crisis of the present time. Since Greek thought and Christian theology, the word spirit has passed through a multiplicity of meanings so much so that we have already arrived at a spiritless condition in which humanity has lost its soul. (Kasper, 198-99)For many today, art replaces the spirit. But when the word beauty and even its existence are called into question, the contemporary artist cannot possibly carry out the task of art except in the form of criticism, protest, and negation. What happens when the Spirit has been abandoned and separated from the true and the good, as in nihilism? Then the beautiful can only be understood as taking the form of a self-serving ecstasy, an affirmation of the sensuous. If art, equated with the spirit, cannot answer how the transformation of reality is to take place without the Spirit, then no answer is in sight. The Christian message of the Holy Spirit is the answer to the distress of our times, the answer to the crisis of our age. (Kasper, 200)“And for all this, nature is never spent;There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;And though the last lights off the black West wentOh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs – Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”)
Popular songs of yesteryear often contain lyrics that lift the spirit. Take for example, “You Gotta AC-CEN-tuate the Positive” and “The Story of, the Glory of Love.” The terse lyrics, “Day By Day,” from the Broadway musical, “Godspell” proclaim discipleship in Christ. With a catchy tune, they paraphrase a prayer in the Ignatian Exercises:
At the very end of “Adam’s Rib,” the 1949 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Amanda quips to her husband: “There’s no difference between the sexes…well maybe it’s a little difference.” Adam snaps back: “Well, you know, as the French say, “Vive la difference! Which means, 'Hurrah for that little difference.'”
“What have they done to our music!” A passionate cry from many American Catholics. The rampant impoverishment of Catholic Church music elicits this insightful conclusion from The Harvard Dictionary of Music “Western church music continues to struggle with fundamental difficulties whose defiance of final resolution may be the hallmark of the vitality of the church and culture, or merely a sign of intractability. In secular terms, such difficulties may be considered as aesthetic, political, sociological, or even purely technical matters, but they have theological meaning as well” (Emphasis added, 179).Power of the Sacred ArtsThis week’s essay is the last of four dealing with the Church’s sacred arts. Music and the other arts have been a reason for returning Catholics to the faith, or a reason for their leaving it. The French writer Paul Claudel was moved to conversion when he heard the Magnificat sung during Vespers on Christmas Eve at the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris:“In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with such force, with such relief of all my being, a conviction so powerful, so certain and without any room for doubt, that ever since, all the books, all the arguments, all the hazards of my agitated life have never shaken my faith, nor to tell the truth have they even touched it” (Paul Claudel, “Ma conversion” in “Contacts et circonstances,” Gallimard, 1940, p. 11ss; cf. also in “Ecclesia, Lectures chrétiennes,” Paris, No 1, avril 1949, p. 53-58, quoted as note 34 in “The Via Pulchritudinis, Privileged Pathway for Evangelisation and Dialogue” (2006), III 3C).The great European cathedrals are Bibles enshrined in stone and stained glass, and compositions like the Bach St. Matthew Passion and the soaring chant wafting from monasteries are monumental expressions of faith that awaken the soul to God. Of sacred music, one student blurts out: “It’s so beautiful, I could faint!”A Visual ImageImagine that you are relaxing at the seashore on a calm day. All you want to do, for an hour or so, is set aside your preoccupations. You enjoy the gentle rise and fall of the waves. This repetition is like a melody of graceful, deliberate, steady, flexible, predictable movement, majestic to behold. Far from boring the spirit, the undulation puts it at ease. We ‘go with the flow.’ After a while, what happens? The rise and fall of the waves mesmerize us. Nature works its magic on the spirit, and this respite does free the spirit to put aside daily concerns. This visual image of rise and fall describes the essence of sacred music.At its best, sacred music conveys a beauty that takes us out of street time giving us a foretaste of God’s time. It passes through the senses but speaks not to them but to the intellect, will, and ultimately, to the heart. Such music prompts the spirit to make that leap toward infinity so that the spirit is drawn beyond the form and oneself into communion with God.The Church has not always assimilated beautiful sacred music but has allowed entry of the mediocre, especially from the nineteenth century to the present.A Matter of TheologyHistory has acknowledged the central role of the Church in the arts. For centuries, Sancta Mater Ecclesia has not only promoted beauty in literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, and music; she has stood as their foremost patron as well. Despite this rich legacy, church leadership in fostering beauty has declined. This essay springs from the troubling realization that beauty is on the verge of being banished from Catholic theology. Not just minimized, trivialized, or ignored, beauty is also being dismissed as critical to liturgical celebration, for it is seen as ornamental or even elitist.Christian discipleship is fundamentally a dynamic movement from self to the beauty of Christ. Were not the disciples first transported by what they heard, and touched in his very person? A lively faith consists not just in creedal words bolstered by the intellect and then believed. Without beauty, faith remains a bundle of truths that are formalistic, dry, and without spiritual unction. Nor is faith simply a matter of performing good deeds. Without beauty, one questions why such charitable works should be done. In fact, their intent may be so utilitarian that there is no transcendent overreach. Joined to truth and goodness, beauty is essential to the Catholic faith.Gregorian ChantToday, no one would advocate that Gregorian chant be the only music sung in parishes. Let us hope that cloistered monasteries allow its 3,000 or more melodies to flourish for the sake of their visitors and for the ages.Sung prayer with universal appeal is more important than the style chosen. Still, plainchant is the melodic foundation and structure of all Western church music. Since the fourth century, it has developed as part of the Church’s culture, and well-formed chant melodies appear as early as the fifth century. It provides the orientation for all sacred music. It is the church’s very own music, a fact taught in all Music 101 courses. As a former student remarked: “It’s so out of it, it’s with it!”Gregorian chant is an unsurpassed treasure of purely melodic music, and its complex flowing rhythms are far superior to the tyranny of the bar line. It is “predictably singable because its melodies have a limited range and makes them accessible to any voice, trained or untrained” (The Harvard Dictionary of Music, 179).All church music – polyphony, motets, Protestant Psalter and hymn-tunes have found ways of adapting their own styles to plainchant’s melodies and rhythms. Quite obviously, plainchant is out of place at secular activities – sports events, parties, at the beach, and camp fires. Its home is the parish or monastery church in the service of the liturgy. Neither conservative nor liberal, Gregorian chant is simply Catholic. “Music of the liturgy,” writes Benedict XVI, “must be different from music that is supposed to lead to rhythmic ecstasy, stupefying anesthetization, sensual excitement or dissolution of the ego in Nirvana” (Feast of Faith, 176). Plainchant is “silent music,” “sounding silence” (St. John of the Cross, “The Spiritual Canticle,” 46). This silence emits its own inner power. But listening to these melodies “disturbs [people’s] inmost beings rousing them to meditation and prayer on the transcendent. They would rather not enter into the realm of solitude. At its core, plainsong suggests a world of aloneness, ineluctably insisting on one’s attuning oneself to one’s self” (Cott, “The Musical ysteries of Liturgical Chant,” 34).“Pride of Place”Like previous official documents on sacred music, Sing to the Lord dutifully mentions the “pride of place” of Gregorian chant. However, the phrase “other things being equal” immediate overtakes the traditional phrase: “The pride of place given to Gregorian chant by the Second Vatican Council is modified by the important phrase other things being equal. These other things are the important liturgical and pastoral concerns facing every bishop, pastor, and liturgical musician. In considering the use of the treasures of chant, pastors and liturgical musicians should take care that the congregation is able to participate in the Liturgy with song. They should be sensitive to the cultural and spiritual milieu of their communities, in order to build up the Church in unity and peace (#73).”“All things being equal” or mutatis mutandis or omnibus rebus aequis, introduces the Latin ablative absolute. The translations are meant to be ambiguous: (a) since all things are equal, or (b) although all things are equal, or (c) while all things are equal.All things are never equal.Mutatis mutandis is a generalized assumption that allows one to assert simply and simplistically, I'm off the hook. “All things being equal” permits a person to avoid discerning the pros and cons of Gregorian chant, in this case, which has traditionally occupied “pride of place.” Accordingly, one need not offer evidence for the truth of its position before the bar of history and reason. Gregorian chant is viewed with caution and anticipated as a potential obstacle to full participation of the faithful. In short, “other things being equal” is a dodge. Colloquially, we would say, a cop-out.Despite strong opposition to Gregorian chant and simple polyphony, there are vital signs that these forms, together with suitable, new music, are coming to some parishes.Continuity of the Church’s TraditionBefore Vatican II, much of the chant and polyphony in use was too ornate, too remote and inaccessible for worshipers to sing. They may have participated quietly at Mass, but with few exceptions, they did not sing at the Sunday liturgy. A renewed postconciliar ecclesiology rightly called for corrective measures to remedy this non-participation. Music was to be prepared in such a way that the faithful would participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Whole Christ.Plainchant and simple polyphony were never officially banished. Nor was the Latin language. In practice however, the Church’s pure, fresh water suddenly disappeared underground. There, beneath the surface, this crystalline water continued to flourish in some, but not all monasteries.Until the advent of ‘folk’-popular style, the vernacular hymnody of Protestant Reformed churches filled the void in parishes. Masses were referred to as “the four-hymn Mass;” this hymnody supplanted the singing of the Ordinary of the Mass and more simple Latin pieces. Still popular in our services, these hymns are easy to sing, beautiful, and theologically precise. The Catholic faithful sing them with gusto. The Christmas carol, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is one famous example. It has a strong theology of the Incarnation.The continuity of the Church’s musical treasury does not merely reclaim the past without also welcoming other music that, as in previous times, bears the imprint of holiness and beauty. Ours is a living tradition as it was at the time of Pope St. Gregory, Palestrina, and that of the Elizabethan and Anglican School. Ukrainian and Russian sacred music, and their contemporary composers have also been assimilated into the Church’s broadened treasury.Gregorian chant has influenced many composers. Claude Debussy, for example, discovered the free rhythm of chant and used it with great success. Some of our senior composers are Joseph Gelineau, S.J., whose settings have a purity of style, Lucien Deiss, Leo Sowerby, Noël Goemanne, Flor Peters. JohnTavener and Arvo Pärt have based their compositions on plainchant.Today there are more composers of beautiful sacred choral music than there are those who write in the ‘folk’ – and popular style. The web sites of the New Liturgical Movement and the Chant Café list other groups and composers who can be found there.Listening As ParticipationDoes active participation exclude listening to great music? Silence is another mode of active participation, a fact verified by throngs who nightly fill the concert halls. “Is it not active participation,” writes Benedict XVI, “at being moved by a piece of music, sung or played? Are we to compel people to sing when they cannot, and, by doing so, silence not only their hearts but the hearts of others too?” (The Feast of Faith, 123-4)Inculturation, Briefly NotedOur parish communities are blessed with diverse cultures, and the choice of sacred music for any given parish should have universal appeal. Some sacred music is superior to others. If we did not make value judgments, parishes would still be singing “Whatsoever You Do to the Least of My Brethren” and “This Little Light of Mine.” This is not elitism but fact. The prevailing ideological view that European church music should take a back seat to music of other cultures is flawed thinking. Every European culture can boast of mature indigenous church music that springs from the heart of the Church. To recognize non-western cultures is not to ignore others. (Benedict XVI, Feast of Faith, 125-26.)A strong musical unity must be found in our parish liturgies. This unity is Gregorian chant. The 2007 General Instruction of the Roman Missal declares that certain parts of the Ordinary ought to be sung at international gatherings as a sign of musical unity, but today our parishes do have that distinctly international character. This practice should become the norm, and the faithful should be taught the easiest chants of the Ordinary without delay (#41). Then, at the other parts of the liturgy, the parish staff may decide how best to deal with musical options provided they comport with the dignity and sacredness of the liturgy. Once the easiest chants have been learned, the congregation may advance to the less easy. In this way, parishes express Christian unity and pass on the treasury of sacred music to the next generation. I have attended Sunday liturgies in Europe where the Ordinary chants and the indigenous music of the locale are sung at the same Mass. The musical symbol of the Church’s universality is Gregorian chant whose home is wherever there are Roman Catholics.One Hour a WeekWhether or not we admit it, “the world is too much with us.” Faithful Catholics attend Sunday Mass to be lifted up from the culture’s assault on their sensibilities. Just one hour a week, away from the din of daily life! A reverently-celebrated liturgy can be powerful enough for them to face the cares of the coming week. They want to be drawn into the ritual, the homily, and the music. The faithful deserve prayerful liturgy and music. Every parish is unique with its own needs, limitations, and talent. Sunday liturgy need not be elaborate, just celebrated with care.What to Do?This past week’s influx of mail brought strong reactions about the fad of ‘folk’ – and popular music. For many, this music is the reason for going to Sunday Mass. Other responders have offered various solutions. I share only a few comments. (1) Transfer to another parish where one’s spiritual needs can be met. Apparently, one pastor pressured his congregants into singing more “upbeat music” from a new OCP. An angry family left that parish. (2) Replace cantors who “botch the liturgy” with voices that sing off pitch, with voices that warble, scoop, and croon as in a cocktail lounge. (3) Request a meeting with the parish staff to plead for better music. (4) Write to the local Ordinary and ask for a response. Many feel helpless to remedy the situation. In all this correspondence, the feeling is one of common wisdom: Do what you must do.Apologia for Sacred MusicAs members of one Body, we are called to reflect on the powerful and formative influence the sacred arts have on the daily lives of the faithful and those not of the Catholic faith. Inferior art forms exercise an equally powerful influence to deform the faith. Are we consigned to the fate of “having nothing to look backward with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope,” to quote Robert Frost?Finally, every parish is called to proclaim nothing but a beautiful faith: the majesty and glory of the Lord found everywhere. Can we bring a visitor into our Sunday liturgies and proudly proclaim: See, this is our Catholic music, our heritage, our pride. Here is our faith!
I will never forget that moment! Flinging off his eyeglasses, he glared at me, “Sister, what have you done to our music!” I froze.
Catholic and Orthodox Christians will be forever indebted to St. John Damascene (8th century) for having defended the doctrinal basis for visually depicting Jesus Christ. Because Jesus entered into the human condition through his Incarnation, he could be depicted in his human nature. The Creator of matter became matter for us and, through matter, redeemed us. In the mystery of the Incarnation, the formless becomes a visible form. The opposing position was known as iconoclasm. Damascene’s “apologia” extends to visual depictions of the Mother of God and of the saints – visual expressions of incarnational theology.Jesus in ArtNo historical figure before or since Jesus has influenced history, culture, science, and the arts in the way he did. Throughout the ages, artists, poets, writers, and composers have depicted him as Lord of the universe in response to the question he asked of Peter, “who do you say that I am?” (Mk 8:29) The revelation of God’s glory in Jesus Christ is the singular light for the ages.We know nothing about Jesus’ physical appearance except by inference. Yet, artists have portrayed him as the God-Man in a way that is always recognizable yet different: a good shepherd, teacher and ruler, healer and miracle-worker, the symbol of human suffering. The best artists portray him with a quiet strength.Nothing is known about the physical appearance of the Mother of God. In the Latin-Rite Church, her externals – blue mantle, extended arms, and halo, make her recognizable. In the Eastern Churches, she almost never appears without the Divine Child. Mere externals however are incapable of expressing the holiness of figures and their ability to raise us up to their level of holiness.Observations from Eminent Church LeadersRomano Guardini, Avery Cardinal Dulles, Thomas Merton, and Pope Paul VI, and others, speak sharp words about the unsuitability of much painting and statuary in our churches. In “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” Guardini observes that “a proof of this [extreme realism] is to be found in the often sugary productions of sacred art, holy pictures, statues, etc. which appeal to the people.” (1930 reprint, 23, n 2)Similarly, in his fiftieth-anniversary edition, “Testimonial to Grace,” written in 1946, Dulles, then a new convert to the Catholic faith, candidly describes what he found repellent in the faith:The painted statuary I viewed, not with the eye of one seeking communion with the saints, but with the sternly critical regard of one visiting a museum of art....I positively recoiled from images of the Sacred Heart immersed in flames, and felt a stern contempt for Catholic religious art in general (63-64).Merton puts it even more trenchantly:Some of us would instinctively be ashamed to let a non-Catholic friend see some of the statues or stained glass windows that are found in our churches. The deplorable quality and lack of restraint of art, and the sentimental, feminine character of the picture of the Sacred Heart, a handsome Jesus with azure blue eyes, statues of Our Lady, dolled up with lipstick and mascara and who looks like a lovely society lady. All these pervert the truth.” (“Disputed Questions,” 159f)When he was working with FUCI, the Italian Catholic Action group, Gian-Battista Montini, later Paul VI, cautioned them to avoid churches with too many plaster statues...(Peter Hebblewaithe, “Paul VI: the First Modern Pope,” 115). Visual sacred art is intended to raise us to holiness of life. Nothing less will do.The Advent of Bad Religious Art and StatuaryRomanesque, Benedictine, Gothic art, and Eastern iconography convey a sense of the sacred, a sense of the otherworldly. Later in this essay, we shall see why.In the Renaissance, artists humanized images of Jesus, his Mother, and the saints. Depictions of Raphael’s Madonna and Child, for example, with their mere extrinsic accidents of title are not religious works, strictly speaking. The artist remains absorbed in fully exploiting the new Renaissance realism of the human form, in the natural beauty of the human figure, and he fails to make the leap to the transcendent Madonna and Child. This is why Raphael’s depictions, though beautiful art, do not belong in churches.The last few centuries exacerbated the problem of overly-humanized sacred figures. To this day, paintings and statues emphasize a sweet, handsome Christ who meets with our approval and is brought down to our small and limited dimensions. Makers of kitsch may intend to convey the holiness of a figure, but without skilled workmanship, disciplined creativity, and spiritual depth, excess is near. Whereas some parish churches have rejected unsuitable religious art, others are saturated in it. Images on religions television programs beg for better artistic images.Thanks to new religious art companies, church leaders and laity are exposed to quality art forms of which we can feel proud. Among people of faith and those of no faith, the demand for iconography is growing by leaps and bounds.The Blight of Non-Quality Church ArtExtreme realism in sacred images “tells a lie” because a depiction of a pietistic Jesus, a sweet Mother of God or the saints “has unfortunate effects on theology, prayer, and worship.” (Kevin Seasoltz, “A Sense of the Sacred,” 54) The presence of non-quality church art forms becomes imbedded – fixed – in our collective Catholic memory. These images are placed in front of the faithful for veneration, but, unless the pastor decides otherwise, they remain a permanent part of church furnishings.Ugly church images are foreign to genuine Catholic culture; they are aberrations to genuine Catholic culture. The television series “Catholicism,” hosted by Father Robert Barron, proudly proclaims the Church’s culture of visual beauty. Unsuitable images “should disturb religious good taste because they keep the soul tied down and prevents it from soaring beyond the natural. When we fail to pause and behold beauty in creation and in the arts, “we allow ourselves to be passively deluged with all kinds of pious and artistic tripe.” (Merton, 153) It weakens the faith.Merton compares bad religious art forms “to polluted air which constitutes a really grave spiritual problem...affecting us only slightly at first, but in the long run the effect is grave. Bad so-called religious art is like rotten food; there is a healthy reaction to bad food: you throw it out.” (Merton, 157)Good Religious ArtThe sacred art in our churches is intended, by its beauty, to inspire and elevate those who venerate what the figure represents: “Through God’s gifts, you will be able to share the divine nature and to escape corruption.” (2 Pet 1:4) St. Paul describes our transformation into Christ as the ascent “from glory to glory.” (2 Cor 4:18)The formality of a sacred art form is its beauty, having sentiment but not sentimentality. The most beautiful is the simplest.For religious art to quality as sacred, it must have a familiar component; it must be recognizable in its representation. Just as important is a purified component. To realize this, the artist first removes some familiar characteristics of a form to make it less familiar. This is done by inserting into it a note of strangeness or exaggeration. Symbols too are used.Changes are made in facial features. To illustrate this point, icons have large eyes that make direct contact with the viewer. Why so? Because sainted people see farther and with clearer vision than most; their integrity is shown in their direct eyeing of the viewer. Pinched lips symbolize that the figures speak little; put colloquially, they do not have big mouths. Still a dynamic balance must be maintained between the human and transcendent, the familiar and the unfamiliar, so that the fullness of the Incarnation will ring true, take off and point to what is beyond the temporal.The Expressionist painter, Georges Rouault (d 1958), exemplifies transcendence in painting. He paints with a distinctive Christian compassion and social consciousness. Human pathos, fallibility, and hypocrisy are symbolized by clowns, prostitutes, and judges, respectively. (B.J. Douaire, “Rouault, Georges,” NCE 12: 685) His works are often found on the walls of monastery chapels and other rooms.Liking Bad Religious Art and Passing It On to Our ChildrenA cursory glance at sentimental images, in churches, in pious magazines, in missals, missalettes, holy cards, liturgical books, and at online catalogues, evokes a vague spiritual uneasiness and distaste. Can this really be our Catholic culture whose church art and statuary have spoken to every age and in every country?Or, perhaps, worse still, writes Merton, “one likes the cheap, emotional, immature and even sensual image that is presented. To like bad sacred art, and to feel that one is helped by it in prayer, can be a symptom of real spiritual disorders of which one may be entirely unconscious, and for which perhaps one may have no personal responsibility.” (Ibid) Merton concludes: “the disease is there–and it is catching!”Catholic leaders, educators, writers, and parents should be disturbed at Merton’s comments. It would be much better to discard cheap sentiment in sacred art rather than expose it to our youth and presenting it as sacred and beautiful, worthy of veneration when, in fact, it is ugly and even vulgar. The danger is that unsuspecting Catholics will be pressured into liking such images. Once again, Merton:The problem, of course, is in the formation of artistic taste, and in developing the capacity to judge between good and bad – an exceedingly difficult problem for some people. But at all events, it should be possible for most of us still in our right minds to agree that there is a certain type of ‘holy’ picture that is genuinely unholy because, if one shrugs off his mental bad habits and really looks at the thing, it will be seen to be in reality a monstrous caricature of our Lord, or of the Blessed Virgin, or one of the saints (157).Suggested Websites of Suitable Church ImagesReaders may consult the following websites to avail themselves of suitable art. (A special thanks to Fr. Peter Ulrich, O.S.B., General Manager of The Printery House, Conception Abbey, MO, who provided the following websites for this essay.)1. Creator Mundi, a distinguished source for sacred art and gifts. Http://www.creatormundi.com2. The Printery House of Conception Abbey, MO. Http://www.printeryhouse.org3. The Abbey Press of the monks at St. Meinrad’s Archabbey, IN. Http://www.abbeypress.com4. Ministry of the Arts by the Sisters of St. Joseph, LaGrange, IN Http://www.ministryofthearts.org5. Monastery Greetings Http://www.monasterygreetings.org Apologia for Sacred and Liturgical Art FormsThe sacred arts exert a powerful and formative influence on the daily lives of the faithful and those not of the faith. Inferior art forms exercise an equally powerful influence to deform the faith.Renewal of the Church’s culture calls for a rebirth of our sacred art forms and an apologia for them. The call goes out to every diocese, parish by parish, to proclaim that beauty is an essential aspect of faith, for beauty protects truth and goodness as their external face. Without comprehensive education, beginning in our seminaries, this goal cannot be realized. If beauty is compromised, gradually truth, goodness, and love, their crown, will follow suit. Worthy painters and sculptors, custodians of sacred art, deserve the support of church leaders, as they did in the past. In this regard, Benedict XVI has led the Church.Catholic images must flourish as a garden of delight, as an array of beauty. We gasp for that beauty of holiness!
In the eighth-century, St. John Damascene posed a challenge to Christians: If a pagan comes and asks you to show him your faith, take him to the Church and let him see the sacred icons” (St. John Damascene, Treatise on Images against Constantine Caballinus, 95-309, quoted in Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions, 158). We will return to this question.
Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine featured an article entitled, “God Who?” According to its reportage, a new and young crop of atheists, numbering in the thousands, has gradually emerged. Among these are pastors “recovering from Evangelical Christianity.” Those unaffiliated with a faith-tradition are being wooed by atheistic organizations who offer protest, denial, and negation.Wholeness For Christians, Jesus Christ, humanity’s redeemer, is the glory of God. Christianity’s mandate is twofold: love of God and love of neighbor.Catholicism insists on wholeness – the whole God, the whole Christ, the complete community, the whole personality, the whole man and woman. (K. Adam, “The Spirit of Catholicism,” 11) Catholicism has the power of assimilation of all that is beautiful, true, and good; it is creative, productive, and original.Nothing remains outside the Church’s integral teaching: the purpose and destiny of every human being, sports and physical fitness, social justice, science and the arts, the care of the environment, the sanctity of human life, human sexuality, marriage, and the family. Our creed, our sacramental worship, our code of behavior, and prayer encapsulate Catholic faith. Moreover, the way of Catholic living is firmly grounded in reason leading to faith. There is a Catholic view about everything, regardless of topic.Wholeness and holiness are two interrelated aspects of one’s life. Both are made up of a thousand trifles, but wholeness and holiness are no trifles.It is a privilege to be born into the Catholic tradition. Like the members of the symphony orchestra, Catholics are in the public view. A private Catholic is a misnomer. To be a member of the Catholic Church is always and everywhere to be a Christèd person and an ambassador for the Church.Terra IncognitaTo most non-Catholics and nominal Catholics, the Church remains a virtual unknown. University students leave their colleges and universities with fragmented and absurd views about Catholic Church history. Their ignorance, however, does not prevent them from critiquing and ridiculing the Church as though they were expert church historians. In fact, their ignorance comes to the fore when they indulge in “wholly trivial, vague, and often nonsensical notions about “the greatest religious and political creation known to history.” These observations were made in 1911 by the influential Protestant scholar and historian Adolf von Harnack (quoted in K. Adam, “The Spirit of Catholicism,” 13). His remarks however are as relevant today as they were one hundred years ago, and perhaps even more so.The Waning of Catholic InfluenceThe Church built western civilization. “Every age has had its own distinctive facet of Catholic Christian culture. Every age has benefitted from its influence; or it has suffered from the human limitations and sinfulness of its temporal existence.” (C. Dawson, “The Formation of Christendom,” 17)Culture refers to our social inheritance; it is what we have learned from the past through religion, education, learning from others, and from our own experience; we in turn hand on that learning and life experience to others.Catholicism is a faith-tradition deeply committed to cultural history. In the past, it influenced human behavior and had an impact on the culture because its wholeness was represented in every available aspect of life. No longer. Culture itself has become the real religion, leaving behind Catholicism which has lost much of its creative, formative power. (L. Dupré, “Seeking Christian Interiority,” accessed online). What has triggered this malaise?Firm belief in creedal tenets is waning, 22% of Catholics worship at the Eucharist to receive Christ’s nourishment, and the Ten Commandments receive a wink and a nod. Time spent in personal prayer, including the praying the Liturgy of the Hours, has been co-opted by distractions. Excessive use of electronic gadgets is one culprit. Bad example and scandal weaken the Body, embarrass the Catholic community, and give Catholicism a bad name. It’s no wonder that Catholicism has been accused of hypocrisy. With few exceptions, the tradition of Catholic culture has lost its authority to influence the age. It is bland and without bite, infected by worldliness, “too much with us.”The salt has lost its savor. Is the Church deformed, and is it decaying?Inner AttentivenessLouis Dupré, eminent Catholic layman and cultural historian, together with others, is convinced that “what Christianity needs is genuine Christian interiority for a humanity capable of living a vigorous and free life within one’s culture, whatever its condition may be.” There is no conflict between an interior life and an integral humanism that embraces, from whatever source it may come, all that is true and noble, just and pure, all that is lovable and gracious.How does Catholicism retrieve its culture and influence in an openly-hostile religious climate? Religiosity repels; so do pietistic platitudes. Instead, smart, sharp, and informed faith attracts because of its predisposition to inner awareness. Those with spiritual depth know that God does matter, and vitally so. Spiritual depth comes with the integration of the divine with the human.The starting point to interiority is a healthy sense of emptiness, or a sense of helplessness. The autonomous man and woman reject this assertion. Yet, what can we do without God? The Johannine verse, “Lord, to whom shall I go?” You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:67) comforts those who know their need for God.Objections to CatholicismChristianity and culture should engage one another, but they don’t always mingle well. The culture would rather see religion concerned with God rather than man, with the absolute and eternal rather than the historical and the transitory. But this is not Christianity. It is true that Catholicism is first a Church at prayer, “but it is also a religion of Revelation, Incarnation, and Communion; a religion that unites the human and divine and sees in history the manifestation of the divine purpose toward the human race.” (Dawson, 18)The Catholic Arts: Key to the Catholic FaithWhen non-Catholics vacation in European countries, what is it that most claims their attention? Catholic art, architecture, and sculpture, and its sacred music, performed in the great cathedrals and even small parish churches. Externals of the Catholic faith are what they first notice and experience. The externals introduce them to the Church giving them the feel of Catholicism, for good or ill. It is to this topic that we shall turn in next week’s essay.
Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium describes the mystery of the Church in images such as a sheepfold, the kingdom, the People of God, and Christ’s own body. All images, including that of a symphony orchestra, merely point to the ineffable.The Symphony as an Analogy for God’s Revelation in ChristThe Classical symphony is a large-scale, four-movement orchestral piece with a conductor. Franz Joseph Haydn (d 1809) is “the father of the symphony.”The Church’s symphony is Jesus Christ, the full, complete revelation and gift of God as taught by the Church. In Christ, God has said everything.Overview of the Symphony Orchestra ProperA symphony orchestra is composed of strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion, played by virtuosi. They must be faithful to the entire musical score, neither adding nor deleting any part of it lest it be deformed or disfigured. All assembled in the concert hall, instrumentalists, conductor, and audience have come to enjoy music, beautiful and ennobling.Each instrument of the orchestra has its own voice but plays in harmony with the whole. Despite the size or power of an instrumental section, no one group lords it over the others. Each needs the other because no one group incarnates the full meaning of the composition.Overview of the Church as a Symphony OrchestraThe Church is the assembly of the Christian community, the Body of Christ and the People of God of the New Testament. The Church is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, who is the Church’s soul and animating principle.The Church calls all nations and races, to become the assembly of the baptized, united in a common faith, a common worship, and a common tradition of apostolic succession. The Church lives and acts in the present but with a view to the eschaton.The law of love is the Church’s bond of unity in its diversity. Every member either builds up the Body or tears it down. Despite the distinctions of ministry, no one group lords it over the others. Each needs the other because no one group incarnates the full meaning of the mystery of the Church.The diversity of the Body is shaped by every nation’s historical and cultural conditioning. Consider the rich diversity of the Eastern-Rite Catholic Churches. Or, the Underground Church of Poland and Hungary in World War II and today, the Underground Catholic Church in Asian countries.The Orchestral ConductorA symphony orchestra is made distinctive by its conductor, who, though part of the orchestra, acts primarily as its public face and official spokesperson. As the symbol of the orchestra’s structure and stability, conductors lead, direct, govern, and coordinate the orchestra. Yet, their role is not absolute.Conductors are masters of the repertory. Whereas the instrumentalists master their parts, the conductor functions like a director of traffic not only learning the entire map of the musical highway but also dealing with the interrelationships of sections to whole. The orchestra looks to the maestro for direction to make beautiful music.Conductors interpret the score according to the composer’s intent. Wise and strong conductors consult with their instrumentalists. Here, consulting means not soliciting an opinion but a fact, as one consults another for the time of day. In the final analysis, all breathe together as one with the maestro's interpretation as the final word.Conflicts must be resolved with due respect for each instrumentalist. Still, orchestral unity rests not with the individual sections but with the maestro. The conductor leaves his imprint on the orchestra’s reputation thus separating his orchestra from all others. Arturo Toscanini and George Szell come to mind.The maestro is to the orchestra what the Pope is to the Universal Church.The Office of the PopeThe Pope is the successor of St. Peter and the perpetual visible source and foundation of unity in the Church. He is the visible head of the Body of Christ. The Pope, in the Office of Peter and in union with the bishops, leads, and directs the Church. With his bishops, he governs. This governance is not a monarchical reign. The Pope presides over the Church in charity. He proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine of faith or morals, and only at this time does he speak infallibly, ex cathedra, from the Chair of Peter. Having consulted with the bishops and laity before pronouncing on these matters, he exercises the supreme Magisterium (Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 891). The faithful must be prepared to receive this teaching.Like the conductor, who has mastered the entire musical score, the Pope’s vision extends across the universal Church, the Eastern and Western, but not the autocephalous Orthodox Churches. In exercising vigilance over the faith, the Pope hands down the living Tradition for the sake of the universal good.When the Church is confronted with heterodoxy or conflict that threatens to sever unity, the canonical and hierarchical Church must preserve or restore that unity.Individual Sections of the OrchestraComposers use the individual instruments for an array of colors to bring out the fullness of the piece. The string section, of itself a hierarchical unity, forms the backbone of the orchestra. It is the most homogeneous group of the entire orchestra having the same family identity. From small to large, they share in the same sonority. Still, they need other instrumental families for contrast, variety, and depth.Each of the woodwinds offers contrasting colors; the brass, strength brilliance, and intensity, and finally, the percussion section, drama and surprise.Individual Sections of the ChurchThe Body of Christ is composed of two groups: the Ordained (Orders) and the Non-Ordained of laity and consecrated religious.Within universal communion, the Body of Christ functions in smaller ecclesial bodies: unity among the ordained persons, bishops, priests, and deacons, and unity among the bishops themselves. The non-ordained ecclesial groups are represented by the laity, Christian families, as well as consecrated religious men and women (Ladislas Orsy, Receiving the Council, 2009, p 7-8, 11-13).St. Peter symbolizes the Church’s structure of Orders, permanence, stability and law, while St. Paul represents the paradigm of the non-ordained in which leadership is creative, dynamic, and idiosyncratic.The Ordained, the bishop with his presbyters and deacons, resemble the orchestra’s string section. Like the violins, violas, cellos, and basses, they too are hierarchically constituted. They speak and act in unison.The Non-Ordained, like the individual and colorful sounds of woodwind, brass, and percussion, correspond to the various charisms in the Church. Such charisms function within the spontaneous promptings of the Spirit, and every age has raised up men and women with graces given for the apostolic unity and holiness of the entire Body of Christ, and even beyond. In our own day, the Church is blessed with new life and vision such as the Focolare and Sant’ Egidio Movements, the Sisters of Life, the Daughters of St. Paul, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, and the Missionary Institute of the Eternal Word not to mention those institutes who have rediscovered their original spirit.ConclusionThe mission of the symphony orchestra is to attract and persuade the audience by the beauty of its musical expression. The flaccid orchestra that ceases to attract audiences dies.The mission of the Church, like the symphony orchestra, is primarily one of service to and for others. The Church offers the world Gospel faith, so beautiful in its truth and goodness. Mahatma Gandhi greatly admired the Sermon on the Mount and always carried a copy of it on his person.Can the Church die of itself or be destroyed from without? Jesus assured Peter, the rock on which he built the Church, that the powers of death would not prevail against it (Mt 16:18). Still, the human element, of itself, can become deformed and disfigured. Flaccid Catholicism provides fertile ground for its adversaries. Fidelity to Jesus Christ -- here is the Church’s symphony.
The text of the Vigil of the Dormition in the Byzantine Rite anticipates with joy the feast that we celebrate on today:O peoples, dance with joy and clap your hands with fervor; gather today in eagerness and jubilation and sing with glee, for the Mother of God is about to rise in glory, going up from the earth into heaven. It is to her we always sing hymns of praise, for she is the Mother of God.The Dogma ExplainedThe feast of the Dormition and Assumption of the Mother of God commemorates her natural death (her falling asleep in the Lord) and her assumption, body and soul into heaven. In the Christian East, the feast is preceded by a fast even stricter than that of the Nativity Fast or the Apostles’ Fast, and, in some monasteries, even that of Great Lent. The first four centuries make no mention of the end of Mary’s life. However, in the fifth century, a controversy, led by Nestorius, arose within the Church as to whether or not she was the mother of the eternal God or the mother of the human Christ: Here we see that “the doctrine on Mary is so closely linked with that about Jesus Christ and his work that the most fundamental affirmations regarding her are found in the Church’s Christological documents.” (The Christian Faith, 1982, 198). The basic Mariological dogma of the divine motherhood is in fact a Christological dogma asserted in the general council of Ephesus (431). Mary’s divine motherhood was upheld because Jesus is not two persons but one, a Divine Person. Mary bore the Incarnate Word and carried him at her breast; she gazed on her crucified Son. It is altogether fitting that the Mother of God, as the New Eve and the Temple of God, should be preserved from bodily decay at her natural death as her resurrected Son was raised. She died a natural death like any other human being. In 1950, Pope Pius XII dogmatically declared Mary’s assumption into heaven in the papal bull, Munificentissumus Deus. Pope Pius quotes St. John Damascene (8th century) "when he related the bodily assumption of the loving Mother of God to her other gifts and privileges: 'It was necessary that she who had preserved her virginity inviolable in childbirth should also have her body kept free from all corruption after death.'" Ambrose Autpert (d. 784) writes that “Mary lifted herself up to such heights of heaven that the Word reached down from the highest pinnacle of heaven and took her in.” The Dogma Depicted in Iconography At the end of her life, Mary was supposed to have left Jerusalem with St. John, and they came to live at Ephesus. Today the House of Mary at Ephesus is a well-visited pilgrimage site.Icons of the Dormition visually depict the theology of the feast. The Mother of God is depicted lying on a bier and is surrounded by the twelve disciples of the Lord. He stands at the center holding her soul swaddled in a cloth. In some icons, at either side of him are depicted Dionysius the Areopagate and Ignatius, the God-bearer who, according to tradition, are responsible for transmitting the account of the Dormition.One of the earliest depictions of Mary’s Dormition is that of a tenth-century ivory plaque of located the Schnürgen Museum, Cologne. Another tenth-or eleventh-century ivory plaque with the same subject is located at the Musée at Cluny. A twelfth-century miniature in the York Psalter depicts the Burial and Assumption of the Virgin. And in the sixteenth century, El Greco painted an icon of the Dormition, which is located in the Cathedral of the Dormition at Ermoupolis.Mary in the Christian East and the Latin WestIn the Christian East, the Mother of God is known as the Theotokos, the one who bore or carried God (literally, the God-bearer). Rarely, if ever, is she depicted without the Divine Child. In the Latin West, the Mother of God is often shown alone and is more commonly known as the Blessed Virgin Mary or simply the Blessed Virgin. In the Christian East, the focus is on her divine motherhood, whereas in the Latin West, her virginity. In a classic paradox, Mary is the virgin-mother.The Many Faces of MaryThe Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. boasts of one beautiful Lady chapel after another where Mary is depicted according to the culture of different countries and nationalities. Each invites the visitor to contemplate the Mother of the Church, strong and exceedingly beautiful.The Church’s teaching about Mary ranges from the biblical, theological, and liturgical, always vigilant about pious devotions and apparitions of Mary in various countries. These include the international devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes, national devotion such as that of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the regional and international devotion to Our Lady of Montserrat, located in the Abbey of Montserrat, a few miles west of Barcelona. In the Christian East, the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir ranks among the most beloved of all.ConclusionThe Akathist Hymn to Mary opens with a theological statement of fact: “You were a Mother, and yet a Virgin; you went up to heaven, and yet did not forsake the world, O Mother of God. You have passed to life, being the Mother of Life. Through your intercession, save our souls from death.”According to an early Syriac text, "with the Dormition, we see the exquisite meeting of heaven and earth. For Mary, it was a special end for a special woman, marked by fine fragrances that rose from her body and from heaven 'a fragrance and sweet odor went forth from the highest heaven of the Lord’s glory to all places of creation.'"