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Feasts are for Reflection

Ryrson cross
Feasts are times to reflect. The Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15th, is an important feast for my community, the Passionists. Mary is the first disciple of Jesus and a model for anyone who wishes to follow him.

The gospel reading for the feast from St. John says simply that Mary stood by the cross of Jesus. She’s a brave woman, not afraid to come close to the fearful place where Jesus was put to death. The Book of Judith, ordinarily the 1st reading for the feast, praises Judith, the brave and wise Jewish woman who’s not afraid to stand with her people at a dangerous moment in their history. Two women of courage face suffering and the challenge it brings.

The prayers, traditions and art of this feast take up the theme of Mary standing by the cross. She’s remembered  in poetry, music and art. “Stabat Mater” Here’s an example in Gregorian Chant and Pergolesi’s magnificent baroque setting.

At the cross her station keeping
Stood the mournful mother keeping
Close to Jesus to the last.

Blessed Dominic Barberi, in his reflections on Mary’s sorrows, emphasizes that Mary is a mother, the new Eve and a follower of Abraham, who hopes even as his son faces death. Dominic places particular emphasis on Mary’s ties to Jesus as his mother, ties of flesh and blood.

Her motherhood provides another strong tradition that  appears in early medieval art – the Pieta– the Mother holding her dead Son in her arms on Calvary. Where did this come from? Some say it comes, not from the gospels which make no mention of it, but from the writings of mystics like St. Bridgid of Sweden, a mother who saw the life of Jesus, particularly his passion, through a mother’s eyes.

The women mystics, many of them pilgrims to the Holy Land, could not imagine Mary not taking the body of her dead Son into her arms when taken down from the cross.

The 13th century icon above, from the Ryerson collection from the Art Institute of Chicago once belonged to a European pilgrim to the Holy Land who brought it back as a reminder of a pilgrimage. It probably reflects the two traditions. Mary, a mother, holds her Son at birth and she stands at his cross at death.

An alternate gospel for the feast recalls Mary’s loss of the Child Jesus in the temple. Mary’s sorrows were not limited to Calvary; they were lifelong.

A study of the Pieta in art in early medieval France explores the diversity of this scene before Michaelangelo’s Pieta became an overpowering icon. “Often she is viewed as caught up in the horror of the moment, but she is also shown praying or even gazing into the distance, as if contemplating comforting memories or the reunion to come. Her demeanor ranges from youthful innocence—the Purity that Time cannot age—to careworn maturity—Our Lady of Sorrows.”

Sorrow has a range of faces.

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Our Lady of Sorrows: September 15

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There were also women looking on from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the younger James and of Joses, and Salome. These women had followed him when he was in Galilee and ministered to him. There were also many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”  That’s how Mark’s gospel describes some onlookers at Jesus’ crucifixion. (Mark 15,40-41)

John’s gospel brings some of the women closer. He places Mary, the Mother of Jesus, standing at the cross itself. “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”

She stands, close by,  not at a distance, not afraid to see, not absorbed in her own suffering, not disengaged from him or his sufferings. She enters into the mystery of the cross through compassion, which doesn’t experience his suffering exactly, but enters it to break the isolation suffering causes and helps someone bear their burden.  The sword, the spear, pierces both hearts, but in a different way.

Compassion is a necessary part of the mystery of the cross.

The Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, which we celebrate in the Roman calendar  on September 15th, was placed after the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross (September 14) only recently, in the 20th century by Pope Pius X.  He took the feast,  formerly the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of Mary, and placed it on this date which is the octave of Mary’s birth (September 7).

The prayer for today’s feast says that when her Son “was lifted high on the Cross” his mother stood by and shared his suffering, but as yesterday’s feast of the Triumph of the Cross makes clear, Jesus  lifted high draws all to himself to share in his resurrection.

Compassion leads to a share in Jesus’ resurrection.

For a commentary on John’s Gospel see here.

For a study on Mary on Calvary see here.

For readings for the feast and the Stabat Mater see here.

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The Triumph of the Cross: September 14

 

Holy sepul

Pilgims enteing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

This ancient ecumenical feast,  celebrated by Christian churches throughout the world, originated in Jerusalem at the place where Jesus died and rose again. There, a great church was built by the Emperor Constantine and dedicated September 13, 325 AD, It was called the Anastasis (Resurrection) or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and became one of Christianity’s holiest places.

Liturgies celebrated in this church, especially its Holy Week liturgy, influenced churches throughout the world. Devotional practices like the Stations of the Cross grew up around this church. Christian pilgrims brought relics and memories from here to every part of the world. Christian mystics were drawn to this church and this feast.

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Tomb of Jesus

Calvary

Calvary

Pilgrims to the church today in Jerusalem’s Old City can visit the tomb of Jesus, recently renovated after sixteen centuries of wars, earthquakes, fires and natural disasters, and also the rock of Calvary where Jesus died on a cross. The building today is smaller and shabbier than the resplendent church of Constantine’s time, because the original structure was largely destroyed in the 1009 by the mad Moslem caliph al-Hakim. Half of the church was hastily rebuilt by the Crusaders, and the present building still bears the scars of time.

Scars of a divided Christendom can also be seen in it. Various Christian groups, representing churches of the east and the west, claim age-old rights and warily guard their separate responsibilities in the place. One hears in this church the difficult challenge Jesus offered when he prayed that ” All may be one.”

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Egyptian Coptic Christians

Seventeenth century Enlightenment scholars  expressed doubts about the authenticity of Jesus’ tomb and the place where he died, Calvary. Is this really it? Alternative spots have been proposed, but scientific opinion today favors this site as the place where Jesus suffered, died and was buried.

For more on the history of this place, see here.

And a video here.

Readings for the Triumph of the Cross

 

 

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Via Dolorosa - 17

“Do not forget the works of the Lord!” (Psalm 78, Responsorial Psalm) We can’t forget Jesus Christ. Like those before us, we seek and inquire after God again and again; we remember God our rock, the Most High God, our redeemer. Don’t forget Jesus Christ who “emptied himself.” His cross lifts us up.

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Morning Thoughts: Other People

by Howard Hain

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Other people. That’s when things get complicated.

Being patient, forgiving, meek, honest, prudent, wise…when it comes to our own wellbeing is hard enough…but when it comes to dealing with the world’s offenses against those we love—especially those put into our care—things can really get out of hand.

For living a life of integrity and peace, of “turning the other cheek”, seems somewhat possible when it’s my cheek, but to ask me to act the same when it comes to witnessing an injustice against my mother, my wife, or my daughter, then it’s a whole other ballgame.

The lamb becomes a lion. I want justice. Now. A roaring lion. Game on. And it is no longer about defense. No, a full-frontal offensive attack is launched. Crush the opponent. Leave no opportunity for the “hyena” to not fully understand: “Not on my watch, you vile creature—you don’t stand a chance—and now you’ll pay tenfold.”

This is all figure of speech, of course. But internally, this hypothetical dialogue is somewhat close.

But then there comes the question of action itself.

What do we actually do?

What should we actually do?

Each situation of course has its own set of circumstances.

But Truth and Wisdom apply to every situation and circumstance.

And that hits upon what is perhaps the biggest affront the world inflicts upon those placed in our care: The lie that Truth, Morality, Virtue, Justice, and Goodness are relevant to time and place, to culture and historical period.

Truth is Truth. Moral Virtue is Moral Virtue. Justice is Justice. And offenses against Eternal Truths are offenses against Eternal Truths, whether you live in Poland, the United States, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, or Zimbabwe.

And yes, I am fully aware that the above statement makes the assumption that there are Eternal Truths. There are. Period. God’s Love and His demand for Human Dignity are real. God’s reality insists upon it.

Perhaps then this is the best first step in truly defending our families: To know the Truth. To stand in the Truth. To anchor ourselves in and to the Truth.

Day by day. Hour by hour. One Eucharistic encounter at a time.

Here then is such a nugget* that might help us navigate the turbulent waters of this new day:

“The rash man has no integrity; but the just man, because of his faith, shall live.”

—Habakkuk 2:4


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* nug·get
/ˈnəɡət/
noun
a small lump of gold or other precious metal found ready-formed in the earth.

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Friday Thoughts: A Common Question

by Howard Hain

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Does it make any sense to ask “why” but not want to know why?

It depends on how we see an answer. For there is one answer that applies to each and every question, that fully satisfies each and every query—one certainty that fully answers all wonderings.

All other answers—true although they may be—are subordinate to this one primary and exhaustive answer.

And this one answer has many expressions, but only one meaning. It has several names, but only one significance. It has billions of manifestations, but only one divine presence.

The answer is “I AM”…

The answer is “Truth”…

The answer is “Pure Existence”…

And on and on….

But let us express it one additional way: “The Perfect Will of God”.

If we believe this—if we believe in God we must believe this—then we have no questions to ask. Unless of course we ask for a different reason—a reason other than wanting an answer. And what may that reason be?

To experience God.

To “know” He is real.

To feel He cares.

———

For does an infant question his mother’s love?

Does he wonder if she will offer her breast?

Does he ask any questions at all?

No. He cries.

He prays with utter faith to a power beyond his capacity to wonder why.

For the newborn “knows” why.

The infant “knows” he is loved.

Yet he cries.

———

And we do too. We cry “why” to a God who knows our every need and has preordained our every righteous desire.

We pray like infants—like newborn children—when we ask our all-knowing and all-caring God a question we instinctively “know” is already forever answered.

We pray when we cry out loud in the direction of Him whom we believe exists—no matter the form of the cry.

For prayer is active believing. Asking is simply a common language.

Either way, the translation is the same.

———

“Why Lord?” (I believe in You)

“Why God?” (I trust in You)

“Why, Lord, why? (I love You)

———

And God always answers.

He always nurses.

More faith…more hope…more love.


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Morning Thoughts: Beyond

by Howard Hain

 

F. Hain Untitled ~2014

F. Hain, “Untitled”, ~2014

 

Beyond “Yes”

Beyond “Amen”

Beyond “I love You”

You are beyond

Beyond prayer

Beyond is my prayer

It looks a lot like sitting still

Like not thinking

Not remembering

Not planning

Not wanting

It looks a lot like pure existence

A lot like being free

Infinitely free


 

You, Lord, are the Lord of Freedom, if only we’d accept Your declaration—if only we’d love the person we most imprison with jealousy and petty dislikes.

Free us Lord from ourselves, from our most secret possession, from our deeply hidden pride.

Grant us, Lord of Infinite Freedom, the grace to fly upward, and inward, all toward You.

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Learning from Genesis


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In his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis invites Christians to turn to the Book of Genesis to understand how they’re related to the earth. Let’s do that.

Genesis makes clear in its first chapter that the earth, “our common home,” is God’s work. God works for 5 days to create the world; only on the 6th day does God create man, whom he gives dominion over creation– but not absolute dominion. God creates all things and calls them good, and every created thing enjoys a distinct relationship to God.

The dominion we have from God is a gift and is not absolute. We’re to help, respect, understand, tend, care for creation: creation isn’t ours to do what we want with it.

The 2nd chapter of Genesis describes the creation of eden-2man. The earth is dry dust, but water wells up making a soft wet clay from the dust. God, like a potter, fashions man from the clay, breathing the breath of life into him and making him a living being.

We’re creatures of the earth, the story says.  As we’re reminded on Ash Wednesday, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

After creating man, God places him in a garden filled with all kinds of plants and trees. Two trees are singled out, the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Man is forbidden to eat from that tree.

What’s the meaning of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Why is it forbidden to eat from it? There are different interpretations. Some interpret eating from the tree as a decision of moral autonomy. I claim a knowledge of good and evil; I say what’s right or wrong.

It’s not unusual to hear claims like that today. Some believe they have absolute choice over their lives. They choose what’s right or wrong, good and evil, rejecting the limits of the human condition and the finite freedom God gives human beings.

Another interpretation sees eating from the tree as a decision to trust only in human experience and human knowledge gained as we grow and progress individually and as a people. Like children distancing themselves from their parents, we’re called to be self sufficient, gaining a wisdom of our own. The danger is to see the experience and human wisdom we gain as absolute.  We don’t need God.

Can we see both these approaches bringing harm to our environment? The first expresses itself in a possessiveness towards created things; they belong to us alone and we can do anything we want with them.

The second way also leads to endangering our environment. Pope Francis speaks of the danger of “anthropocentrism,” putting human beings at the center of everything, a trend he traces back to the beginnings of the Enlightenment in the 16th century. Trusting human knowledge and human creativity, some are convinced that science and technology alone hold the promise of a perfect world.

Technology isn’t enough to meet our present environmental crisis, the pope says, we need to change humanity. We need to humbly accept our place in creation, as God meant it to be.

What about the tree of life in the Genesis narrative? It seems plain enough. In the garden the tree gave humanity the promise of continuing life, but once banished from the garden human beings now face death.

tree-of-lifeWhen Christ came in the fullness of time, he brought life to the world. In his death on the cross, death itself was replaced by life. His cross is a tree of life.

 

The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19). It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence.[40] This is a far cry from our situation today, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.”

Pope Francis, Laudato SI  66

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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