We follow the Feast of Christmas with the feasts of St. Stephen and St. John, two saints who point to the meaning of this mystery:
“The love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven,” St. Fulgentius says of the martyr who was put to death for proclaiming his belief in Jesus Christ.
St. Augustine comments on John’s words: “We proclaim to you what we have heard and seen.”
“Make sure that you grasp the meaning of these words. The disciples saw our Lord in the flesh, face to face; they heard the words he spoke, and in turn they proclaimed the message to us. So we also have heard, although we have not seen.
“Are we then less favoured than those who both saw and heard? If that were so, why should John add: “so that you too may have fellowship with us?” They saw, and we have not seen; yet we have fellowship with them, because we and they share the same faith.
“And our fellowship is with God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son. And we write this to you to make your joy complete – complete in that fellowship, in that love and in that unity.”
John’s letters and gospel are read at Mass on the days that follow the Feast of Christmas.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, welcomes us to this church, the largest and most ancient of her many churches in Rome. On the summit of the Esquiline Hill, a short distance from the Lateran Basilica, the church was begun in the early 5th century and completed by Pope Sixtus III (432-440.)
Hardly a good time to build a church. In 410, Alaric and his Goths shocked the Roman world by sacking the city all thought invincible. In 455 the Vandals under Genseric vandalized the city. Twice more in the century other barbarian tribes invaded.
The English historian Edward Gibbon called this period a time of decline and fall.
In far off Palestine St. Jerome cried out in disbelief at Rome’s misfortunes. In Africa St. Augustine replied to the followers of Rome’s traditional religions, who said Christian weakness caused the city’s devastation, by writing his treatise “The City of God.”
Christians were not the cause the city’s misfortunes, the saint said; two loves are at work in the world building two cities. One love builds an evil city; Christianity builds the City of God, promoting love and justice, even in hard times .
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is honored in this church. The Christian world then saw her as a defender of Jesus, her son, who was both human and divine. In 431, the Council of Ephesus repudiated Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, for refusing to call her “Mother of God.” The title safeguarded Christian belief in the mystery of the Incarnation: Jesus is God and man, the council said.
The title does not make Mary a goddess, otherwise how could she have given birth to Christ who is truly human? Yet, she can be called Mother of God, because Jesus who is truly her human son is truly Son of God from all eternity as well.
Devotion to Mary ran high in the Christian world after the council, and churches dedicated to her arose everywhere. In the city of Constantinople alone, 250 churches and shrines in her honor were built before the 8th century. Pictures, icons of Mary holding her divine child multiplied, especially in churches of the East, where they became objects of special devotion.
St. Mary Major was not built just as a doctrinal statement, however, it also shored up the spirits of frightened Christians who lived in dangerous times. On its walls stories from the Old and New Testaments called for courage and hope. God’s plan does not lead to decline and fall, they say, but to triumph in Christ.
In this church, Mary is Jesus’ mother and closest disciple. This place is “a school of Mary” – to use a phrase of Pope John Paul II–who teaches the mysteries she has learned.
She is a leading figure in the sacred stories depicted here and is joined by a noticeable number of women from the Old and New Testaments who like her seem powerless, but are empowered by God.
The great 13th century mosaic in the church’s apse of Mary crowned by Jesus Christ as heaven’s queen proclaims God’s triumph in her, but also his triumph in the church as well. She is taken up to heaven “to be the beginning and pattern of the church in its perfection, and a sign of hope and comfort for your people on their pilgrim way.” (Preface of the Assumption)
It shouldn’t surprise us that many of the mysteries in which Mary had a special role were first celebrated here as liturgical feasts. The Christmas liturgy, especially the midnight Mass on December 25th , began in this church in the 5th century and spread to other churches of the west. Early on, a replica of the cave under the church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, was constructed here. After the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land in the 7th century, Christian refugees placed relics here purported to be from the crib that bore the Christ Child and relics of St.Matthew, an evangelist who told the story of Jesus birth.
Besides the Christmas liturgy, other great Marian feasts, such as her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, developed their liturgical forms in this church.
Built on a hill where all could see it, near Rome’s eastern walls so often threatened by barbarian armies, St. Mary Major affirms Christianity’s ultimate answer to its enemies. It is not military might, but the power of faith and love that triumphs in the end.
Visiting St.Mary Major
The church’s 18th century façade was built by the popes to enhance the appearance of this important church at a time when many visitors, especially from England and Germany, were traveling to Rome on the Grand Tour to visit its classical and religious sites.
The church’s interior, with its splendid 5th century mosaics along the upper part of the nave, retains its original form better than any other of the major basilicas of Rome.
The Sistine Chapel at the right hand side of the nave was built to house a silver reliquary with relics of the crib brought from the Holy Land in the 8th century. Two popes, Sixtus V and Pius V are buried there.
The Borghese Chapel at the left hand side of the nave honors the ancient icon of the Virgin and Child that Roman Christians have reverenced for centuries. A reproduction of the icon is a nice remembrance to bring home.
The magnificent 13th century mosaic in the apse of the basilica presents the Coronation of Mary in heaven. It’s surrounded by 5th century mosaics depicting scenes from the birth of Jesus and the life of Mary.
Jesus Christ reveals the love of God and teaches us to love, Augustine says:
“You are told “Love God”. If you say to me “Show me whom I should love”, what can I say except what John says?No one has ever seen God. But you must not think yourself wholly unsuited to seeing God: God is love, says John, and whoever dwells in love dwells in God. So love whoever is nearest to you and look inside you to see where that love is coming from: thus, as far as you are capable, you will see God.
” So start to love your neighbout. Share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless pauper into your house. Clothe the naked, and do not despise the servants of your kin.
“What will you get from doing all this? Your light will break forth like the dawn. Your light is your God, your dawn, because he will come to you to end the night of this world — he who, himself, neither rises nor sets but is eternal.
“By loving your neighbour, by having care for your neighbour, you are travelling on a journey. Where are you journeying, except to the Lord God, whom we must love with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind? We have not yet reached the Lord, but our neighbour is with us already. So support your neighbour, who is travelling with you, so that you may reach him with whom you long to dwell.”
Prayer is more than looking for something, like a cure for sickness or getting a job., In prayer we search for something we do not even understand. It’s a hope we have for something beyond anything we know, St.Augustine writes to Proba, a woman asking him about prayer.
“There is one thing I ask of the Lord. This I seek: to dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come. To gaze on the loveliness of the Lord…” The psalms express that hope..
We have an “instructed ignorance,” the saint says, and the Spirit of God helps us in our weakness.
“The Spirit pleads for the saints because he moves the saints to plead… to plead with sighs too deep for words by inspiring in them a desire for the great and as yet unknown reality that we look forward to with patience. How can words express what we desire when it remains unknown? If we were entirely ignorant of it we would not desire it; again, we would not desire it or seek it with sighs, if we were able to see it.”
The sky over the boardwalk at Spring Lake, New Jersey, is sometimes swept with colors before nightfall. Then, a lamp is the only light till dawn.
The sun will rise again and the great Sun will also rise again, Augustine says. Then “lamps will no longer be needed. When that day is at hand, the prophet will not be read to us, the book of the Apostle will not be opened, we shall not require the testimony of John, we shall have no need of the Gospel itself. Therefore all Scriptures will be taken away from us, those Scriptures which in the night of this world burned like lamps so that we might not remain in darkness.”
Darkness is temporary; we are meant for light.
“I implore you to love with me and, by believing, to run with me; let us long for our heavenly country, let us sigh for our heavenly home, let us truly feel that here we are strangers. What shall we then see? Let the gospel tell us: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. You will come to the fountain, with whose dew you have already been sprinkled.
“Instead of the ray of light which was sent through slanting and winding ways into the heart of your darkness, you will see the light itself in all its purity and brightness. It is to see and experience this light that you are now being cleansed. Dearly beloved, John himself says, we are the sons of God, and it has not yet been disclosed what we shall be; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
“I feel that your spirits are being raised up with mine to the heavens above; but the body which is corruptible weighs down the soul, and this earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind. I am about to lay aside this book, and you are soon going away, each to his own business. It has been good for us to share the common light, good to have enjoyed ourselves, good to have been glad together. When we part from one another, let us not depart from him.”
This weekend we had a program at our monastery in Jamaica, New York, entitled Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si and the Wisdom of Thomas Berry, Passionist. The main presenters were Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, senior lecturers and research scholars at Yale University.
The program began Friday evening with the award-winning film “Journey of the Universe” produced by Tucker and Grim along with Brian Swimme, which brilliantly portrays the story of our universe as science today explains it. On Saturday Mary Evelyn and John lectured on the pope’s encyclical, the influence of Thomas Berry and the contribution of native peoples to the critical question of the environment. I was among the commentators responding to their presentations:
I was one of Fr. Thomas Berry’s first students. It was at Holy Cross Preparatory Seminary in Dunkirk, NY in 1950. It’s usually not noted in biographical material about him, but Tom taught history to seminarians that year and I was in his class.
I remember the first day he came into class with a stack of booklets in his hands. “We have to know what’s going on today in the world,” he said, “and so we’re going to study The Communist Manifesto.”
Now remember, this was 1950. Senator Joe McCarthy had begun a witch-hunt to root out Communist sympathizers and I think The Communist Manifesto was on the church’s list of forbidden books. We studied it.
Yet, Tom never mentioned Joe Mc Carthy or the threats of a Communist takeover in Europe or what was happening then in China. No, he was interested in where the Communist Manifesto came from. Beyond Karl Marx and Lenin, he traced it back to the Jewish prophets and their demands for justice for the poor and human rights. The long view of history was what interested him.
After the Communist Manifesto, we studied St. Augustine’s City of God. Two loves are building two cities, Augustine said. Again, Tom didn’t dwell much on the historical events used by Augustine to illustrate his theory of history. It was the overall dynamic of the two loves in conflict over time that interested him.
From Augustine, we studied Christopher Dawson and his book The Making of Europe. Dawson, one of the 20th century’s “meta-historians,” wasn’t interested only in Europe; he was interested in the whole panorama of civilizations that came before it. That was Tom’s interest too.
As far as I remember, Tom didn’t speak of the universe and its evolution, his focus in later years, yet you could see him heading that way. He had a mind for the long view of things.
Pope Francis in Laudato Si also has a mind for the long view of things, it seems. The pope doesn’t quote from The Communist Manifesto, but he insists, more strongly than the manifesto, on the rights of the poor, to which he joins a strong insistence on the rights of the earth.
Can we also hear echoes of Augustine’s City of God in Laudato Si? I think so. The pope speaks of two loves in conflict. There’s the love that builds the city of man. How describe it today? How about blind consumerism; we love things too much. We love our vision of material progress too much. We love our technology too much. We love our control over the earth too much. We love ourselves too much. The result is “global indifference” to an environment falling apart. (Laudato Si, 9,14)
Opposing that love is a love the pope sees in Francis of Assisi, “who was particularly concerned for God’s creation, for the poor and the outcast…he would call all creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’… If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.” (LS, 13)
Berry, like the pope in Laudato Si, accepted science’s view of our environment, yet also like the pope he distanced himself from a major trait of the era of the Enlightenment which unfortunately causes us in the western world “to see ourselves as lords and masters of our environment, entitled to plunder her at will.” (LS, 2)
Science teaches us a lot about our environment and its perilous condition today, but knowledge is one thing and love is another. Two loves are at work. Love doesn’t always follow what we know, especially if our hearts are fixed on something else. Love is hard to change.
I heard the preachers and teachers and ordinary folk in the workshops that followed our workshop presentations bemoan the poor reception the pope’s encyclical has received so far. Why isn’t the environment a critical issue in our parishes, in the media and in the political world? Why aren’t we undergoing what the pope calls “an ecological conversion?”
There are many reasons, I suppose, but one thing seems sure. It’s not going to happen overnight through some quick fix. We need to get ready for the long haul. And what does that mean? We need wise teachers and leaders to guide us, like Thomas Berry and Pope Francis.
“The present time is not a time for desperation, but for hopeful activity.” Thomas Berry, CP
A story’s told that St. Augustine, the great philosopher and intellectual, was walking along the seashore one day when he saw a little boy playing in the sand, taking water from the sea in a small bucket and pouring it into a hole he had dug. Back the forth the boy went.
“What are you doing?” Augustine asked, “Do you think you can put the whole sea into that little hole?”
“No,” the little boy answered, “And neither can you put God into that small mind of yours no matter how smart you think you are.”
The story reminds us that our minds are limited before the mystery of God, even the smartest, most brilliant mind. God is beyond us. The Feast of the Holy Trinity is, first of all, a reminder of our limits before the mystery of God.
And yet, this feast also says that God invites us to know him, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As Father, God is the creator of heaven and earth. All creation ultimately comes from God’s hand. Creation itself is God’s gift; through the created world we come to know God.
God has also invited us to known him in Jesus Christ, who was born of Mary over two thousand years ago, who walked this earth and died on a cross, who rose from the dead and remains with us. We have his words, his actions, his promises. He’s our Savior and Redeemer, a sign of God’s love; he’s promised us life eternal..
The Holy Spirit also is God with us, within us, guiding us and our world to our common destiny.
Yet, though God reveals himself, we’re still like the little boy on the seashore. We’re looking at an unmeasured sea that we approach with the little buckets of our minds. We can’t grasp it all. Even the most accessible person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, remains a mystery to us.
Remember the story of the conversion of Paul the Apostle. Saui, the unbeliever, was on his way to the City of Damascus to persecute the followers of Jesus, when suddenly a blinding light throws him from his horse. “Who are you, Lord?” Paul cries out. “I am Jesus whom you persecute, “ the voice from the blinding light says.
Jesus Christ is like the blinding light of the sun. Yes, he is human like us, but he shares in the nature of God, who is brighter than sunlight. He blinds us when we try to see him. God dwells in light inaccessible, the scriptures say, and so even though we know much about Jesus, even though the scriptures and great saints and scholars describe him, he’s still beyond anything we can know.
Like the sun, Jesus is a blinding light, and yet, paradoxically, his light shines into the darkness of creation to give life and light. St. John says: “No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him.” (John 1,18)
As people of faith we’re not like those who say you can’t know God at all or like those who say God doesn’t exist because my mind cannot grasp him. Yes, we have to admit that we are children of the Enlightenment, that movement in our western world that says there’s no need to pay much attention to God. Pay attention to the world at hand. Pay attention to yourself. That’s what’s important.
As people of faith we know God is important. God reveals himself to us little by little. God is the most important reality we can know and love.
The Feast of the Holy Trinity is a reminder of God’s invitation to know him, to serve him in this life, to pray to him and to be with him one day where we will know him much more. It’s an invitation God extends every day, all our lives. Father, Son and Holy Spirit.