Category Archives: art

St. Agnes, January 21

St. Agnes
January 21, 2019

St. Agnes, Rome

Agnes, one of the most popular Roman women martyrs of the 3rd century, is among the seven  women mentioned in the 1st Eucharistic Prayer:  “Felicity, Perpetua,  Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia.” She’s honored in a special liturgy in the Liturgy of the Hours. 

Her story appears in legendary 5th century sources, but some basic facts about her seem historically reliable. Agnes was a beautiful, wealthy 13 year old girl chosen to be the wife of an influential Roman man, but she refused to marry him because she believed as a Christian she had the right to remain unmarried. A deeply religious young woman, she wanted to give her life to God.

That wasn’t an option for Roman women then. Women were expected to marry young, to marry men chosen for them, and to have two or three children. Rome needed citizen soldiers then to grow and hold on to its empire. Only reluctantly did Rome come to depend on foreigners for its fighting. It preferred its own men and wanted its own women to produce them. 

When Agnes refused to marry, she went against Roman expectations. She was also a Christian and since she lived in times influenced by Diocletian, a notorious enemy of Christianity, she was a target of religious persecution. They pressured her to give up her beliefs; when she refused they declared her an enemy of the state.

Tradition says the authorities brought her first to the Stadium of Domitian, to a brothel of prostitutes there, to commit her to a life of degradation, but God kept her from harm. She would not yield, and so they took her to the arena and killed her by slitting her throat. Those who saw her die marveled at her courage and her faith. 

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Martyrdom of Agnes, Church of St. Agnes, Rome

Commentators like St. Ambrose, writing afterwards about Agnes, marveled at the young girl’s bravery. In Roman households of the best kind, young girls were protected and not expected to speak for themselves. Here was a young girl who stood up to the Roman establishment, even till death. How did she do it ?

“God chooses the weak to confound the strong” the prayer for the Mass of St. Agnes says.  She confounded the way Roman Christians thought about holiness. Men like Peter and Paul and other disciples of Jesus, soldier saints like Sebastian, who witnessed to the faith by dying for it were  the usual measure of holiness then. Devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, grew later in the 4th century, as disputes took place about the human nature of Jesus. In Agnes’ time women were hardly seen or heard. 

Agnes and women martyrs like her redefined the way early Roman Christians thought about holiness. Women, even young girls, could be heroic witnesses to the Jesus Christ. 

Agnes was buried in the catacombs along the Via Nomentana outside the walls of the city and has been honored there ever since. A majestic ancient church stands over her grave. Another 16th century church honoring her in on the Piazza Navona, where the Stadium of Domition once stood and the young girl endured great suffering.

Some say the 1st Eucharistic Prayer mentioned above goes back to the 6th century pope, St. Gregory the Great, whose family home was on the Celian Hill in Rome, Some also say his mother and aunt may have promoted the women listed in that prayer, all strong women who died for their belief.

One of the new Eucharistic prayers asks us to see “the signs of the times by the light of faith.” What’s the role of women in our times and in our church? 

Wonderful churches to visit, if you go to Rome.

st. agnes church
St. Agnes, Via Nomentana, Rome

The Calendar on the Kitchen Door


About this time every year when I was a boy, my mother would put up on the kitchen door the calendar we got from church. She marked down the anniversaries of family deaths and birthdays and other celebrations coming along, and she added other dates as the days passed. The pictures on the calendar interested me most then. When we put up the calendar, we were ready for the days ahead.

The calendar’s still a good way of getting ready for the days ahead. “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart,” one of the psalms says.

Our calendars today may be on our computers instead of the kitchen door, and they’ve changed in a number of ways since the Second Vatican Council. The council created a general calendar of the main feasts and seasons, Christmas and Easter, advent and lent, to be celebrated by the whole church throughout the world. The general calendar also lists the days for celebrating saints honored the world over, such as Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the apostles, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Theresa of Avila. It also lists scripture readings read at Mass for the weekdays and Sundays throughout the year. It guides us to the treasures of our faith.

The council left countries and regions to decide on some celebrations of their own. In our particular calendar here in the United States, for example, we celebrate Thanksgiving Day and American saints like St. Elizabeth Seton, St. Elizabeth Cabrini and St. John Neumann.

The calendar’s still a good way to keep our lives in order, not only doctors’ and social appointments, birthdays and anniversaries, but our spiritual lives as well. They go together. We’re meant to live from feast to feast and be formed by the mysteries of Christ, his saints and the scriptures.

Every Sunday evening I try to publish the week’s calendar on my blog – http://www.vhoagland.wordpress.com . It’s my kitchen door. Through the week I reflect on the feasts and seasons and saints on that blog. The calendar’s a teacher helping us to “number our days aright.” It’s our daily catechism.

December 18: Joseph, Son of David

Nativity

In today’s gospel from Matthew we meet Joseph, the husband of Mary, who has an important part in Jesus’ birth and early years.

Matthew’s gospel calls Joseph as a just man, someone who listens to God rather than to himself, and does God’s will. He’s a carpenter, the gospels say, certainly not privileged – but he’s a “son of David” from the royal family who gives the world a Messiah.

During their betrothal, which in Jewish tradition was more than the modern engagement we know, Joseph finds that Mary is pregnant. A just man, he struggles to find a way to divorce her quietly when, in a dream, an angel of God tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.

Here is the key part of the angel’s message: “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.”

Like Mary, Joseph believes God’s message. Like Mary, he sees more than human eyes and a human mind see. “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.” He believed what we say in our creed: “(Jesus) was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.” Jesus became one of us, God was with us.

Artists early on pictured Joseph with his head in his hands, listening in sleep to the angel’s message. In a dream later he heard the angel telling him to take the child and his mother to Egypt to escape Herod, the king. He was a man of great faith.

The medieval artist who painted the picture above has Mary pointing to Joseph as a witness to whose Child this is who’s’ born in a stable. They are the first to believe and they will care for Jesus with all the love and care they can give him.

Joseph has his hand on his head, as he does in so many portrayals of him. The angel spoke to him in dreams. Faith is like a dream where God speaks to us in another way.

O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!

Saving Santa Claus

Santa’s coming to town for Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Parade. From the parade he’ll go into the store  for Black Friday and be there for the rest of the days till Christmas.

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But Santa Claus is more than a saleman, isn’t he? He’s a saint– Saint Nicholas. He reminds us Christmas is for giving rather than getting. His story of quiet giving mirrors God’s love shown in Jesus Christ.

Telling his story is one of the ways we can save Santa Claus from being captured by Macys and Walmart and all the rest. First, take a look at our version for little children. Then, you might want to go on to our  modest contribution for bigger children– like us:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADevygB9jNs

St. Martin of Tours, November 11

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Martin of Tours is a saint worth reflecting on,

Saints are the antidotes to the poison of their times, Chesterton said,  so what poison did Martin confront?

One was the poison of militarism. Martin was born into a military family in 316,  his father a Roman officer who came up through the ranks and  commanded the legions on the Roman frontier along the Rhine and Danube rivers. When his son was born his father saw him as a soldier like himself. He named him Martin, after Mars, the god of war.

Rome was mobilizing then to stop invading barbarian tribes, and soldiers, like the emperors Constantine and Diocletian, were its heroes.  But Martin wanted nothing to do with war. As a young boy he heard a message of peace and non-violence from Christians he knew. Instead of a soldier, he became a Christian catechumen, over his father’s strong objections. Martin was a lifelong peacemaker.

He died on his way as a bishop to settle a dispute among his priests.

Another poison Martin confronted was the poison of careerism. Elected bishop of Tours by the people, Martin adopted a lifestyle unlike that of other bishops of Gaul, who were increasingly involved in imperial  administration and adopting the privileged style that came with it.

Bishops set themselves up in the cities;  Martin preferred to minister in the country, to the “pagani”, the uneducated poor.

Are the poisons of militarism and careerism around today? We remember our war veterans today.So many died in terrible wars these 100 years and many bear the scars of war. Militarism is still around. So is careerism .

The story that epitomizes Martin, of course, is his meeting with the beggar in a cold winter as he was coming through the gate in the town of Amiens, still a soldier but also a Christian catechumen. He stopped and cut his military cloak in two and gave one to the poor man. That night, the story goes, Christ appeared to him in a dream, wearing the beggar’s cloak. “Martin gave me this,” he said.

Pope Benedict XVI commented on this event.

“ Martin’s gesture flows from the same logic that drove Jesus to multiply the loaves for the hungry crowd, but most of all to leave himself to humanity as food in the Eucharist… It’s the logic of sharing.

May St Martin help us to understand that only by a common commitment to sharing is it possible to respond to the great challenge of our times: to build a world of peace and justice where each person can live with dignity. This can be achieved if an authentic solidarity prevails which assures to all inhabitants of the planet food, water, necessary medical treatment, and also work and energy resources as well as cultural benefits, scientific and technological knowledge.”

That’s well said.

In medieval Europe farmers were getting ready for winter at this time, putting aside food and meat for the cold days ahead. Martin’s feast day was a reminder to put aside something for the poor. The poor are always with us; are we remembering them?

Today’s  Veterans Day in the USA, honoring those who fought in our country’s wars. It was originally called Armistice Day celebrating the end of fighting between the Allies and Germany on November 11, 1918. The United States lost 116,516 troops in the 1st World War; other countries lost millions more. The wars that followed added to that count.

Saints Simon and Jude

Simon Rubens

St. Jude LaTourSaints Simon and Jude, whose feast we celebrate October 28, are mentioned only a few times in the New Testament list of apostles,  tenth and eleventh respectively. (Mark 3,13-19, Luke 6,12-16)

Simon is called  `the Zealot,’ either because he was zealous for the Jewish law or because he was a member of the Zealot party, which in the time of Jesus sought to overthrow Roman domination by force.

Some of Jesus’ followers,  the Gospels indicate, were hardly pacifists. Peter was ready to use his sword in the garden of Gethsemani when the temple guards came to seize Jesus;  James and John told Jesus to call down fire from heaven on the hostile Samaritans whom they met on their journey to Jerusalem.

Simon, therefore, may thought of revolution when he answered Jesus’ call .

Jude, called `Thaddeus’ to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot, may be the brother of James, the son of Alphaeus, some interpreters of the Gospel say. If that’s so, he’s also a relative of Jesus. He may be the author of the Epistle of Jude in the New Testament.

Early Christian traditions – all difficult to prove historically – locate the ministry of these apostles in places as far apart as Britain and Persia; one important legend from 3rd century Syria says they were apostles to Syria. If so, we ask their intercession for that troubled place today.

Knowing little  about  Simon and Jude may be a good thing, because then we have to look to their mission to know them –they were apostles.

The mission of the apostles was to follow Jesus. “ ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ Jesus says in the Gospel of John. He also said “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”

God made his will known to the apostles  in due time. They didn’t decide what to do or where to go by themselves. They knew God’s will day by day, as we do.  So often, it was unexpected and perhaps not what they planned.

“Your will be done,” we say in the Lord’s Prayer. That’s an apostle’s prayer. We try to make it our prayer too.

Friday Thoughts: Francesca and William

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Julie Manet with cat”, 1887


 

Francesca, like most 4-year-olds, is not particularly gentle when it comes to petting a cat. Well, let me put it another way, her gentleness as compared to her zeal when It comes to petting a cat is somewhat lacking. Hence, our cats spend most of their time in the attic of our apartment, hiding from the over-affectionate hand of Francesca.

One morning I was on the couch and Francesca was sitting at the coffee table working on a coloring book. From the door leading to the attic peaked the head of William. Francesca saw him and quickly looked at me, and for some reason this time she attempted to implement what she had been told many times before.

In a barely audible whisper, she looked for affirmation: “Daddy, I shouldn’t move, right?”

“No, Francesca, stay still…”, I whispered back, “…let him come to you. Just leave your hand down by your side.”

And lo and behold, William began to make his way toward us, and began to even approach Francesca’s still fingers. He sniffed. He balked. He approached again. Francesca went to move and stopped. William and Francesca courted each other, one filled with fright, the other excitement, both nearly shaking with emotion.

Francesca broke the tension and attempted to pet his head. William allowed it but could not hold together the nerve to stay put once Francesca’s hand moved past his neck. Off and up the stairs William went.

I realized something. Sometimes, when a person is filled with fear he can not be approached. No matter how kind, soft, sincere our intention, he just can not take the approach, any approach. He needs to make the first move. And we on our part need to simply stay still, patiently waiting for him to come closer, and then maybe, just maybe, we can make a kind gesture. But even if the person runs away at that point we need not take it personal. It is fear that is the cause. Neither the person giving nor the person receiving is to blame.

But unlike cats, who usually show fear just as it is, perhaps with an occasional threatening hiss, humans on the other hand show fear through a different type of tremble. They often preemptively throw insults, curses, mocks, pushes, and even outright physical strikes.

And just as it is hard to ignore the sharp claws of a frightened kitten digging into your arm—even when we fully understand that the kitten truly means no personal harm to us—it is hard to ignore such “attacks” from our fellow man. It is hard to strip them down to what they really are: pathetic attempts at self-preservation. But then again, was not Jesus striped down? And shouldn’t we always keep Christ’s Passion in our hearts? Well, then, as a sign of gratitude, we owe it to Jesus to see His Passion in all our interactions, especially the encounters that cause us pain, be it a superficial abrasion or a wound that pierces the core of our soul.

Let us then employ God’s grace in seeing all harshness, in any form, from any human being toward us, as fear. And by doing so we find ourselves very much in the actual footprints of Christ. For what nailed Him to the Cross was not jealousy nor anger nor even resentment, but fear, fear of the worst kind, fear of the truth. And in the case of Jesus, Truth had a very real face.

But we too are alive. We too have within us the divine presence, a presence that some find dreadfully frightening.

No, we can not like Jesus be sinless, but we can see our persecutors as he did: men to be pitied not punished, men that need mercy not condemnation, men who if we don’t offer forgiveness to are less likely to find it within themselves when they are at the other end of the sword—when it is their turn to be insulted, cursed, mocked, pushed, and even outright physically struck for simply wanting to love.

In the mean time, Francesca continues to color and William sleeps peacefully up in a tight nook of the attic. In the fullness of time, they’ll see eye to eye, as shall you and me.


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—Howard Hain

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