An ancient chant, taken from Psalm 118:24. In the modern usage, this text is used in the Divine Office and for the Gospel Alleluia verse for all 8 days of the Easter octave, today through Divine Mercy Sunday. In Catholic tradition, Easter is too big a deal to fit into just one day, so the celebration of the day of Resurrections is extended over 8 days, and then a season of 40 days until the Ascension to celebrate the Risen Christ with us.
This is the day which the Lord hath made: let us be glad and rejoice therein. Alleluia.
verse for Easter Sunday: Give praise to the Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever. (Psalm 118:1) [Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us.]
verse for Easter Monday: Let Israel now say, that he is good: that his mercy endureth for ever. (Psalm 118:2)
verse for Easter Tuesday: Let them say so that have been redeemed by the Lord, whom he hath redeemed from the hand of the enemy: and gathered out of the countries. (Psalm 107:2)
Every great composer in the West set this to music for centuries, so, in addition to the epic and wonderful chant setting above, we have any number of other glorious versions:
Bach set this, because of course he did:
Happy, Holy, and Blessed Easter! He is truly risen!
This post may be of interest to my Christian brothers and sisters who are not Catholic, as it may give some insight into what we crazy Papists are up to.
This nativity has it all: Angel choirs dancing above the stable; Faith, Hope, and Charity perched on the roof. To the left, an angel directs the Wise Men to the Babe; an overwhelmed and elderly Joseph (the typical medieval way he was imagined) sits bowing near the Infant. Mary, on her knees with folded hands, worships her newborn Son while the ox and ass look on. To the right, another angel directs two shepherds.
Below, three people are being embraced or perhaps lifted up by angels, cheek to cheek. Seven little demons flee, several impaled on the instruments of torture they carry.
Except for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, all the people are crowned or are being crowned with laurel – the crown of victory. The fat little Baby is reaching for his mother and sucking his fingers.
Subtler details: the stable is a cave, a part of the earth. Through the back of the cave one sees a beautiful forest – Eden-like, even. The scale of the forest seen through the cave doesn’t match the forest to the left, as if it’s not part of the same scene.
Although Botticelli was a Renaissance master, he still uses the medieval vocabulary of symbols. Christ was born not merely on the earth, but in the earth. He is not something added to the surface, but rather of the matter of our order of Creation. The ox and the ass in the same way are representatives of Creation itself worshipping the Son. Eden, which is the proper, intended order of Creation for Man, is visible through the cave, where Heaven and Earth meet in the Person of Christ. The veil is drawn back, so that angels rejoice and demons flee.
Ave fit ex Eva, as the medievals were known to say: the ‘Ave’ with which the angel greeted Mary is made from Eva, the pure and innocent Mary saying ‘yes’ replaces the pure and innocent Eve saying ‘no’. Through Mary, God restores, and then some, the proper order of Creation as remembered from Eden. The whole scene captures the wedding of Heaven and Earth, of angels and men, of earthly and heavenly creation.
There is a combination of general representatives and specific individuals. Mary, Joseph, Gabriel, the Wise Men, and Shepherds are particular individuals we know from the story; the angels and the three men at the bottom of the picture are representatives of Heaven and Earth; the men in particular invite us to read ourselves into the scene.
The people for whom this picture was painted would understand that intended part of their reading of themselves into the story is the acceptance of a God-given role – Thy Will be done. Mary is glorious because she perfectly accepted God’s Will for her – the glory is all God’s, but she is its perfect mirror. In the same way, Joseph’s humble, silent acceptance of God’s Will makes him glorious by reflected light. Even the ox and ass are glorious in a similar way, although they act only as extensions of the human beings who raised them and put them in the stable. But that’s what we do – glorify God by how we use the gifts He entrusts to us.
Or how about this one:
Here, the artist uses a conceit – an unseen candle held by Joseph but shielded by his hand from us – so that he can show Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds lit by the reflected light of the Christ Child, the actual source of light in this picture.
A thousand years later, these ideas, of a cave, of light, of God-with-us Emmanuel, of our place in God’s scheme, of the meeting of Heaven and Earth and the redemption of all Creation, found expression in a thousand church interiors all across Christendom.
We’re used to well-lit interiors, thanks to Edison, but, as designed and used, the interiors of churches necessarily share much with the cave of the stable. In Gothic churches, during the day, at least, light enters filtered by stained glass; at night, only candles and lamps provided light, which would seem very dark to us.
But it is through that cave that we see the new Eden, lit by the Light of Christ.
The cave is also the Tabernacle of the New Covenant, the Holy of Holies, containing Jesus. Yet it is the only the second tabernacle. Mary, greeted by Elizabeth as ‘the mother of my Lord’ – the queen, in the usage of the time – is the first and primary tabernacle, the Holy of Holies as a person. Her humility is perfect, meaning she accepts the role God has given to her with complete abandonment of herself – full of grace.
Yet, because she holds nothing back and gives all to God, she is more perfectly herself than any other purely human person. But doing God’s Will is not passive. We are made in the image and likeness of the Creator and the Savior. Thus, Mary’s surrender – be it done unto me according to Thy Will – results in *activity*, creative, redemptive activity. Always, Mary’s actions in accord with God’s Will are reflections of that Will and activated by it. Yet God choose her and filled her with grace so that she could eternally serve Him, as the Mother of His Son.
The most common name given to Catholic Churches is some form of Notre Dame – Our Lady. You’ll find parish churches and cathedrals named Queen of the Angels, Mother of God, Queen of All Saints, Star of the Sea, Our Lady of Solitude, Our Lady of Victory, Visitation, Mother of Sorrows, and a hundred other names and references to Mary.
Catholics do this because each church is a tabernacle of the New Covenant, a place where the Incarnation continues through the priest when he, acting as Jesus commanded the Apostles, incarnates Him in the bread and wine. By the Divine Will, Mary’s perfect yes brought that Will into this world, uniting Heaven and Earth, making each of us members of a Royal Priesthood, made worthy to enter the Holy of Holies where Christ is present on His altar, the Lamb of God. We then become, each of us, that Tabernacle when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
Christmas means all these things. We honor God by honoring Mary, Queen and Holy of Holies by His Will. The Child in her womb, the Babe in the manger, the Lamb of God on the Cross, the risen Lord, the Pantocrator – Mary was there for all of that. Her work of bringing Jesus into the world, in the image of God and reflecting and embodying His Will, continues eternally.
She always reflects His glory, always points to the Son, always does His Will. We, honoring her, always follow her lead and give worship and glory only to Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.
Have a Happy, Holy, and Blessed Christmas Season! (which runs from sundown today through the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Party hard till then!)
A Happy and Prosperous New Year to my followry! May you be fruitful and multiply (for my benefit, right? Oh, never mind.)
Lately, I’ve been reading some 19th century American Catholic writers, to get a better feel for how the people involved thought and felt about those tumultuous times. Thomas Hecker, who is a Servant of God, is both loved and loathed, typically according to how ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ the critic is. He is baffling in some ways, vigorously defending the Church’s core teachings as one would expect a Servant of God to do, but then proposing ideas that, if they mean anything, don’t square with those vigorous apologetics. I’ll write more on this when I get a little farther. He and Brownson, two American Protestant converts who tower over the middle of the 19th century, have, each in his own way, incorporated aspects of their Protestant upbringing into their new Catholicism without, it seems so far, acknowledging any risk or downside.
Hecker focuses on the direct work of the Spirit in our lives. While of course the Church recognizes this aspect of our faith as central – the feast of the founding of the Church is Pentecost, after all – the Spirit is seen to act primarily through the Sacraments and supremely through the Eucharist. The most vigorously active saints, those whose lives most show forth the action of the Spirit in the world, are invariably those most devoted to the Eucharist. Hecker, in the softest of terms and with constant deference to the teaching authority and Sacraments of the Church, nonetheless sets up a conflict between the normal Magestarium and the life in the Spirit. He dwells at length on the perceived enervating effect of the Church’s Counter Reformation emphasis on obedience and authority, which culminated in Vatican I’s declaration of papal infallibility. He falls all over himself confirming how this emphasis on obedience was a good and necessary thing, but insists that it has, somehow, caused Catholics to be far more passive than is good for them. He points to contemporary troubles of the Church in Europe, where the politics in even majority Catholic countries were dominated by secularists and other anti-Catholics.
He makes passing reference to the Jesuits, who (at least, in their fundamental form) were *the most* obedient body in the Church, thumbing their noses at the Protestants by adding an additional vow of obedience to the Pope. Jesuits (as founded, and sometimes in practice) were both the most obedient AND the most active of orders. Meaning, whatever supposed problems (excessive? hard not to see this) obedience presents, it seems to have missed the contemporary Jebbies.
It all rings false. On the one hand, he is careful not to criticize obedience to the Church too directly, and to even praise it; on the other, he’s inescapably criticizing obedience as the source of the *political* passivity of Catholics, and proposing shifting focus to the Spirit as a remedy.
Not surprising, he is a sort of patron saint to the American ‘spirit of Vatican II’ crowd. As in their interpretation of the council documents, the spirit of what Hecker means is to be followed, even when it contradicts the actual words he wrote.
Brownson shares with Hecker a tendency to see America as the next step in Salvation History. Men, freed from the shackles of a European history full of bad or at least outdated political ideas, finally build a near-Heaven on earth upon the foundational American ideas, which can only be sustained by the Catholic faith. To his credit, Brownson seems to have gotten over this ideas – the post-Civil War destruction of many of those supposedly foundational ideas, such as a minimal Federal government that respects the local rights of states – probably contributed to this.
Lots more to read. Just doing background at the moment, but both Brownson and Hecker have a lot to say about education. I want to know where they are coming from, first, before I get too deep into it. We need a term, say, Black Rabbit Holes or Rabbit Black Hole, to describe both the randomness and irresistable gravitational pull of the things that come up whenever one attempts a little scholarly research…
From the sublime to the ridiculous: On the whole, 2019 was better than 2018. This is not saying an awful lot. In 2018, I was fired from a job I’d had for 20+ years; slipped and fell on the rocks in the American River, cracking some ribs and needing stitches in my hand; learned what bedbugs are; and in general was some combination of ill or hurt or depressed for pretty much the entire year. Not a high bar to hurdle.
Let’s count the blessings: Starting around 6 months ago, finally started feeling better, lost about 30 lbs (got a ways to go!), had the youngest son get totally into the Boy Scouts & hiking and all that good nature-y stuff, had 2 kids graduate from college, had a daughter get engaged to marry a fine young man. So that’s pretty darn good! Not to mention the stock market has been very good to the retirement funds. (A couple more years along those lines might even make up for the last 20…)
However, after having burned through 2/3 of the emergency savings, I need a job. My wife lost her job of 15 years when the school we’d help found and sustain for 20 years went full gender theory on us. So I’ve now been unemployed for 18 months, and the missus for 6. Not sustainable!
May God bless you and yours over the next year, and save us from time getting any more interesting than necessary. For me and mine, 2020 is the Year of Getting a Job. Preferably sooner rather than later.
A Happy, Holy & Blessed Christmas to all, and to all a happy and prosperous New Year!
Consider the 2nd movembt of Beethoven’s 7th symphony:
The story goes that when Beethoven debuted this work, the audience stopped the concert after this movement, and insisted it be repeated. Classical music audiences were a little more outgoing back in the day, it seems.
The audience’s reaction is perfectly understandable: pre-recorded music, one might die before getting a chance to hear this sublime and beautiful piece again, so why not now? A work this beautiful is life-changing. It may sound like just another overly-familiar classical work to jaded ears, but in context it is strikingly unusual: listen to the whole 7th, which is one of civilizations greatest works of art in any medium, and the 2nd movement still stands out.
But this Allegretto isn’t just aesthetically pleasing, it’s also deeply satisfying intellectually. The more you listen and think about it, the better it gets. Beethoven sets himself a series of puzzles or challenges, and ‘solves’ each one in inventive and unusual ways, yet, somehow, after you’ve heard it, all the little departures from expectations (or beauty where you didn’t know what to expect) sound utterly inevitable. And it fits perfectly within the symphony as a whole – as hard as it is to believe, it was only with this 7th symphony that Beethoven finally won over all the critics, many of whom had disliked his 3rd and nit-picked his 5th. The 7th is just perfect, and that 2nd movement slayed people.
Finally, as is true of all great art, the 7th, especially the 2nd movement, is bottomless: you can go as deep as you want, and there’s always more.
This confluence of soul stirring beauty and soul-stirring intellectual gratification is , of course, what makes great art great in the first place. Only in these dark modern times would anyone think to divorce emotional force from intellectual beauty.
These (mundane & traditional) thoughts were occasioned by the Christmas Gospel reading:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
This Gospel story from Luke is beautiful in a specific and somewhat odd way. Consider these 2 sentences from the middle of the selection:
While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
This is the climax of the story: Mary gives birth to the son foretold by the prophets and announced to her by an angel of God, yet Luke gives it a sentence, as if it were any other birth of any man. The Lord and Creator of the the Universe, as described in the opening of John’s Gospel, or even as, in a similarly subtle and understated way, in Mary’s encounter with her cousin Elizabeth in the passage immediately preceding this one, is wrapped in the cloth of the poor and laid in a feeding trough for animals, with the casual, after the fact explanation: there was no room in the inn.
So, two matter-of-fact sentences that lay out the entirety of the Christian claim, paradox and stumbling block: That God became Man in this very specific time and place, utterly weak and humbled, and was wrapped and bound and laid among the food for animals by his own mother’s hands. He wasn’t even able to find a place at what was no doubt the very humble inn.
The artwork inspired by these two lines could fill any number of museums; a concert of the music written to commemorate them would go on for months; and the books holding the writings about them would fill any number libraries. And the flood shows no signs of abating.
Then, a great multitude of angels sing a song of infinite glory – to a bunch of sheep, and the shepherds watching over them.
The story of Christ’s birth is as beautiful as it is simple, and satisfies the soul. But it is also intellectually satisfying, not in the sense of providing a tidy summation, but in the sense of offering infinite depths to explore.
A few weeks ago, some observations and advice crossed my Twitter feed (yes, I have a Twitter account. So sue me.) about how, as a man, to work more effectively. It came from Adam Lane Smith, writer of Maxwell Cain: Burrito Avenger and the Gideon Ira novels, whose day gig is psychological therapist.
The advice involved recognizing and capitalizing on the single-track nature of how men work, and building rituals and habits to enhance focus and eliminate distractions, and was just the little extra push I needed at the moment. So, I cleaned up my home office, which I’d allowed to get so cluttered that it had been unusable for about a year.
Some of the clutter consisted of boxes of old paper and files that had followed me around for decades. I bit the bullet and dug in, determined to find an appropriate place to file this stuff, with a bias toward the trash can.
Well. The oldest stuff was from college, and included the first serious musical composition I’d ever tried. It was hilarious in one way: the style changed not once, but twice between the opening and conclusion: I was figuring out stuff as I went, and incorporating it on the fly.
I have a file for such things. Filed it.
Then came writings dating back to the late 1980s. At least three novels in various stages – an outline, a couple chapters, a bunch of chapters – and a half dozen short stories. Also a letter from a professional writer-friend critiquing one of the short stories, a copy of which I did not find.
Finally, I found these:
While I remember the concerts well, and remember getting the review, I had forgotten what the reviewer had actually said. At the age of 25, I had found a composition teacher in Santa Fe, who also happened to be the founding director of the Santa Fe Women’s Ensemble, one of a number of pro and semi-pro classical musical groups in Santa Fe back then. While in 1983 Santa Fe had only about 40,000 residents, it punched way above its weight musically: in addition to the famous Santa Fe Opera, which attracted talent from opera companies around the world, there were at least 2 professional orchestras and 2 professional choirs, in addition to the Chorus of Santa Fe community choir (which I sang in sometimes) and the semi-pro Women’s Ensemble: Suzanne had assembled a group from the hired gun singer community, the kind of people you can throw music at and have it sung well with minimal practice.
Earlier that year, Suzanne had offered a once-a-week class in composition; I signed up along with a few other people. A few sessions in, she gave an assignment where we were to write a short composition using only ii-V-I chords. I was spending that week in Eugene, OR, and had no access to a piano, so I wrote something for piano and voice directly to paper and hoped it was OK. It came out well, and Suzanne offered to take me on for private lessons. She told me that if I wrote something for the Women’s Ensemble, they’d perform it.
So I did, a 3-minute loing Kyrie in 4 parts, SSAA. I knew in advance that normal voicing rules didn’t really apply – these gals were pros, and could sing very high, and very low. So I pushed things a little. The Kyrie section is very much polyphonic, but more after the modal fashion of Faure than classic Palestrina style. She liked it, but told me to cut loose on the Christe as a contrast. I was doubtful, but did it: it’s a bunch of very dense chords moving in a funky chromatic manner – you want contrast? I’ll show you contrast! – brought back around to F for a near-repeat of the Kyrie, in the traditional manner. Some soprano got to sing an a above the staff, mezzo-piano, and hold it for a while. Good times.
I know I have a recording, but can’t lay my hands on it. It’s in The Pile somewhere. When I find it, I’ll throw it up here for your listening pleasure.
After that concert, my next assignment caught me a little off-guard: Suzanne told me to write a string quartet after the style of Mozart. Um, what? This blue-collar kid from SoCal had never intentionally listened to string quartets, Mozart’s or otherwise…
But before I got too far, I had an opportunity to move to Albuquerque and attend an art school, where I could get piano lessons as part of the schooling and would have access to a nice grand to practice on. The piano teacher, Matalie Wham, was awesome, still the best I’d ever had. She is a tall as me – 6′ 2″ – with huge hands, and damn, she could play. I was blessed to study with her.
So I did that, and lost touch with Suzanne. For the next 4-5 months, I practiced anywhere from 5 to 10 hours a day. At the end, I knew that, if I stuck it out for another year or two, I could be good. My meager skill on the piano all traces back to this period.
But the art school was becoming intolerable. The director was, frankly, a sociopath, and many of the people there – it was a tiny school – were, let’s say, less than stable. Nowhere to hide. So I left, and signed up for classes at UNM. A few months of deliveries for Fox Foto and living in a freezing converted cinder block garage, and I’d really had it. My beloved future wife lived in Santa Fe, we saw each other only rarely (an hour drive each way, so weekends, pretty much), and I was burned out. So I packed my few belongings and a cat into my car, and headed back to SoCal, to get a job, settle down, with the goal of getting my beloved to marry me.
The whole marriage thing worked out very well, but I had to pretty much kill any musical dreams I had. Off and on, I directed and sang in some choirs, played in a coupole rock bands. But rock was never really my thing, and I frankly have very meager skill as a performer. I wrote some rock songs, but stayed away, mostly, from composing. Around age 40, 20 years ago, I found a composition teacher and signed up for some lessons, but we really didn’t hit it off.
A couple years ago, as my job started its death spiral, I started coming home from work and heading straight to the piano, and playing for an hour or two. Took out Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, and some Joplin rags, and had at it. This is the most I’d played since my time with Matalie. (The Beethoven was and is way over my head, BTW, but I can sorta hack my way through it.)
It was awesome. In his opening comments, Richard Stark mentioned that they would be singing each of the traditional chant settings of the O Antiphons, followed by a choral setting, except in the case of the O Clavis David, where he had been unable to find a suitable setting.
So, for the first time in years, I grabbed some music paper and a couple of pencils, went to the piano, and started pounding away at a vocal setting. First, I printed out the texts and chant settings, sang through them a few times, made some notes on texts and music (the ‘O’ is set the same in all 7 chants; the ‘Veni’ is identical in all but one; each contains the same ascending climax figure; each ends with nearly identical cadences. And so on.)
I’ve gotten half way through a very rough draft of O Clavis David; plan is to set all 7, using related themes and treatments, but with unique twists to each, such that the whole represents a culmination and single statement.
Hey, dream big.
(Note: I’m working on the education history book in the afternoon, after spending the morning job hunting. Composing happens in my spare time, and will not interfere with other activities. )
On an unrelated note, while I have done no work on the Eternal Brick Project since the end of summer, a nice bit of moss has started growing on the path to front porch, and it looks cool!
Social media (the tiny corner I frequent, at any rate: Twitter & some blogs) has been discussing a stupid poll (1) showing most Catholics don’t believe in the the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Well. Not to put too fine a point on it, most Catholics couldn’t pick a monstrance out of a lineup of migratory waterfowl, so I’m not real surprised here. Subtle teachings like ‘show up for Sunday Mass’ and ‘no sex outside of marriage’ seem to truly baffle your average Catholic, in my experience. Don’t let your view of the knowledge level of the faithful get skewed by hanging out with the people who actually attend Mass with you; most of the people saying they’re Catholic in this poll probably couldn’t name three dogmas of the Church to save their lives. If they even know what a dogma is. (2)
Since everybody’s got their opinion on the cause and solution to this problem, I will not offer mine so much as simply quickly review how such a stupendous and stupefying claim was communicated to the faithful over the years. Spoiler: the Church used to be wise enough not to confront the searcher or believer with a mere Wall of Words. The meaning of the word transubstantiation is not difficult to grasp, but the Reality being described by the word is truly ineffable. It would be wise to appeal to more than just the verbal intellect when trying to communicate something as profound ad the Real Presence. Consider:
This is the view you get when you walk in the main doors of Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal. The art and architecture conspire to create beauty, mystery and focus. Nobody needs catechesis to understand something important is happening here, and where it is happening.
Walking down the center aisle, you get to the high altar:
There’s that Jesus fellow, front and center. Everything works together to tell you something important is here, something beautiful and mysterious.
The church in which the Blessed Sacrament is to be confected, consumed and reserved is the building in most traditional Catholic towns; in the larger towns and cities, there may be many churches, but generally, there is a main church – and no one can miss it. And in each, the art and architecture work together to draw attention to the main altar, which is what the building is built around, as it were.
And on and on. Churches were constructed, from the very earliest days, to not just hold a congregation, but to give glory to God – and to help the people understand, through beauty, that something of infinite value was here. Nor were beautiful churches limited to major cities. Here is a church from a village in Southern Poland:
If you’ve traveled to the older cities in the US much, you may have seen beautiful churches, often built by poor immigrants, all over the place. Up until maybe the 1950s, local Catholics building beautiful churches were the rule.
But this is just the start. A high mass sung in a great church is the greatest single work of art mankind has ever achieved.
Music, incense, pageantry, ritual, and the resulting solemnity all work with the building and artwork to convey one thing: this, here, is infinitely important. That’s how the Church for centuries treated the Real Presence; that’s how people came to know it and believe it. The teachings will always ring fantastical and hollow if the Church itself does not act as if it is true.
Now, if we just get the extraordinary ministers to approach the tabernacle with more reverence than if they were fetching a cup of sugar from a kitchen cabinet, that would be a start.
Pretty much all polls are stupid; Pew polls doubly so, with their air of objectivity and Science! I imagine the Pew pollsters, if confronted with their obvious biases, would either give you a deer in the headlights stare, or, if really feeling it, a Snidely Whiplash mustache twirl and cackle. Or not. Maybe I should rephrase this: anyone who takes such polls as these at face value is stupid.
As mentioned here, I’ve spent a good bit of time with the products of our local ‘Catholic’ prep schools – and, yea, well, um, not so much Catholic. OTOH, hanging out with the homeschooled Catholic crowd gives me a little hope. Leven, and all.
Was blessed this weekend to be present at two very beautiful masses, the baccalaureate mass for our son’s graduation at TAC, and a 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning mass at St. Therese’s in Alhambra, California. These masses were both very different and yet very much the same, one a huge celebration in a gorgeous church presided over by a bishop and half-dozen priests, with a amazing choir and organist, and all the pomp and ceremony one could want. The other was a low mass in a pretty parish church, with the only music being the typical Latin commons for the Kyrie (yes, it’s Greek, I know) Sanctus and Agnus. The priest also sang a bit of an old Marian hymn as an illustration of some point in his homily.
They were the same in their reverence, and in being directed to the glory of God and not the glory of men.
The choir at TAC is amazing. A school of 350 or so students can somehow produce a choir more than worthy of their beautiful church and school. There has long been a frankly shocking amount of musical talent at that school, given that there’s no music program as such (the students study music a little as part of their Great Books program). Yet in the now decade that I’ve been going down to campus, seems there’s always something musically excellent going on. At the family of the graduates dinner Friday night, for example, two different acapella groups founded or peopled by students, or both, performed, and both were excellent.
Saturday morning, the baccalaureate mass began at 8:30 in a packed church. Here’s my one and only complaint about that beautiful building: site lines from anywhere other than the nave are terrible. When it’s a full church, half the people are in the transept or side aisles, and might as well be outside for as well as they can see anything. This obscured vision is a result of the sanctuary being recessed enough to be mostly invisible from the transept, but mostly from a nave and side aisle design in a building that’s not that big. In gigantic cathedrals, it’s often possible to see fairly well from much of the side aisles, as the columns are farther apart and the nave wider. In Our Lady of the Holy Trinity Chapel, all you can see from 90% of the aisle spaces is the columns and the nave – the altar and sanctuary are totally blocked. Of course, for 95% of the masses celebrated there, everybody sits in the nave and it’s no problem, so this is a minor complaint, really.
The Mass began with Come Holy Ghost while the faculty and graduates filed in, followed by the chant Introit while the clergy and Bishop Barron processed in and the altar was incensed. The mass commons were some lovely polyphony I didn’t immediately recognize, most likely Palestrina, perhaps – one of that crowd. They also did motets for offertory and communion including Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, and more chant propers.
For the recession, the choir sang the hymn tune from Jupiter from Holst’s the Planets – an extreme case of redeeming some beautiful secular music, in this case, from the hands of a goodball gnostic astrologer. Lovely.
Or it seems you can just listen to it – here. Audio is a bit spotty, but you will get the gist. Bonus Bishop Barron homily.
The next morning, Mother’s Day, we – my wife, mother-in-law, our 15 year old son David, freshly-minted graduate Thomas, elder daughter Teresa, who lives in Alhambra, and our younger daughter Anna Kate who flew in from New Hampshire to surprise her big brother, gathered for the 7:30 a.m. mass at St. Therese’s and brunch afterwards. Younger daughter also is graduating, in one week! She had handed in her senior thesis Monday, defended it Thursday, then flew out Friday, flew back Sunday in order to take her finals! Insane, but typical – those two are only 20 months apart in age, and were often thought to be twins growing up (and fought like cats and dogs). Despite needing special permission to defend her thesis early so that she could leave Friday, and despite having to try to study for finals on the plane, she was not going to miss this.
Our older daughter Teresa helped arrange all this, picking up Anna Kate at the airport and putting her up, and driving her to the graduation. I love our kids! There are far better than I deserve, that’s for sure.
Mass was what you’d expect early on a Sunday morning – very low key. The people, which included a passel of Sisters of Charity (they always look so happy!), knew the chant propers and sang them well. Quiet, reverent and of course efficacious.
We may not often get to have the 90+ minute high sung mass celebrated in a great church by competent, devote people, but I’ll take a revenant low mass celebrated by people who care any day of the week. I’m grateful to all the people who helped bring about both masses, even and perhaps especially those whose devotion helped to transmit a culture in which such things can take place.
Happy, Holy and Blessed Feast of St. Joseph! Moving on from the celebration of some minor saint who is patron of some island somewhere, we reach today the feast of St. Joseph, Most Chaste Spouse of the Blessed Virgin, Terror of Demons and PATRON OF THE UNIVERSAL CHURCH. You know, this guy:
This Bulgarian icon wonderfully expresses the tenderness and affection of St. Joseph for his family, and they for him. Joseph holds Mary and Jesus and lays his cheek on her head, showing both his love for her and her Child, his foster Son. Joseph’s attention is entirely on her. Mary leans into Joseph, who has the God-given role of protector and provider for her and Jesus, but her gaze is fixed on her Son. Jesus, nestled in her lap and embraced by the strong arm of the carpenter, turns his gaze to us, and blesses us.
As in all great icons, there is a world of theology behind these simple images and gestures. In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 1:20-21, an angel gives Joseph instructions:
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. (1)
The angel addresses Joseph as “son of David,” showing that Joseph himself is of the royal blood of the great king. He is instructed to take Mary into his home as his wife, bringing her and her Son under the jurisdiction and protection, as it were, of the King. Note the gold cloak Joseph wears – the color of kings.
Joseph has traditionally been honored as a most humble and obedient servant of God.His blue tunic, just peaking through, is the color of the sky, traditionally seen as all-encompassing, nurturing, feminine and passive in the sense of accepting. So Joseph’s cloths tell us he is a king, but not the Great King. His is to accept obedience to a higher authority, as he does without comment or hesitation when God’s angel gives him instructions.
His eyes are on Mary. All the saints are secondary causes used by God to effect our salvation; the first and greatest saint is Mary. Thus, in the economy of salvations, Joseph turns his attention to Mary, who, through her fiat, brought Christ into Joseph’s life, and into our lives. This is the mystery of the Body of Christ, in which each of us has a role and finds salvation through being a channel of the grace of Christ’s saving sacrifice to each other. No one is saved alone. Each receives God’s grace from the hands of others.
Mary of course has her eyes on Jesus, while acknowledging Joseph by the simple act of leaning on him. She and her Son in fact leaned on Joseph, who provided for and protected them the rest of his life, in response to God’s will.
Mary wears red, a color of power, as in fire, and life, as in blood. When she is depicted alone, she is usually shown in dark blue or black – colors of the night sky, of mystery, of feminine potency. Here, in her home with her family, her ‘true colors’ as it were are allowed to show. Alone, she is often depicted with some red or gold tunic peeking out from under the dark blue or black cloak:
Alone, we are invited to think of Mary in her humility, with just a little reminder of her power and glory. Even in the first icon, showing her with her family, she has some blue tunic showing. Her glory and queenship rest upon her humility.
Finally, Christ, seated on Mary’s lap as on a throne and supported and protected by Joseph’s arm, turns His eyes on us, and blesses us. He comes to us not as a bolt from heaven, nor in private revelation, but in the simple, human son of real human parents. He is able to bless us, to be with us and to save us, because two humble people said ‘yes’ when asked to die to themselves and live only for God. While God needs nothing, He chose to glorify Mary and Joseph by giving them a key role in His act of salvation. He Who needs nothing allowed them to support and sustain Him, and through them He saved the world. We are to imitate Mary and Joseph, say ‘yes’ to God’s commands, and be given our salvation through becoming channels of God’s grace to others.
The Child wears gold for kingship (a stronger gold than Joseph’s) and white for purity.
Back to Joseph, here a some other traditional-style icons:
The first two images above have all the traditional elements: Joseph in a black or midnight blue tunic with a gold cloak, holding Jesus with both arms, eyes locked on the Child. Jesus, thus sustained and protected, holding onto Joseph’s hand, looks out at us.
The last two images, of the angel appearing to St. Joseph in a dream, also have Joseph in blue, but with a red cloak in the first and a brownish cloak with just a hint of gold in the second, lying in what might be a red hammock or blanket. In both the angel is dressed as a royal messenger.
There’s a lot more to traditional representations of St. Joseph, how he became portrayed as an old man with a flowering staff (medieval embellishments) sitting flabbergasted on the edge of the Nativity scene (nod to the mystery plays, or maybe the other way around) – but that will have to wait until next year.
This calls to mind a story I once heard from a woman who did prison ministry. She’s trying to explain the perpetual virginity of Mary to a bunch of scary looking dudes who aren’t buying that Joseph kept his hands off Mary all those years, until one very large and scary dude opined that it made sense to him: “Who’s going to touch God’s Baby’s Mamma?”