Geoffrey Chaucer discovers the five things meme, and receives a most sensible Christmas present; Maria Popova presents a sampling of vintage Hobbit illustrations from many lands; H.L. Hix talks about omens and winter; Elizabeth Lunday analyzes the Adoration of the Magi.
This Christmas, as I knelt at Mass, sang Christmas songs, and looked upon the little creche in my parish church, everything I saw, everything I thought of was the Holy Land.
When we sang “Silent Night,” “Away in A Manger,” “O Holy Night,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” I was in the cave at the Church of the Nativity.
When we sang “Angels we Have Heard on High,” I was in Shepherd’s Fields.
My life will never be the same. Christmas. Easter. The Feast of the Holy Family. Good Friday. My prayer life will never be the same. And I feel so blessed as a result.
January 10th is the deadline to sign up for my Holy Land pilgrimage, April 17-26, 2015, and there are still spots left! Will you fill one of them?
If you’re thinking about joining us, let me show you some of what I’ve written and produced on the Holy Land. If you know someone who wants to go, and who would find this info useful, please send them a link to this post. The more, the merrier!
There is the series I produced, The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land, which you can watch in its entirety right here. Here’s an introduction to the series:
Then, there are all my photos, which you can browse here.
And there are the blog posts. I’ve blogged about the Holy Land so much since going. I can’t shut up about it! It was SO AWESOME!
There are my blogs post when I was in the Holy Land this past year:
Blog Posts after my visit in 2011:
- Holy Land Rosary Honor for My Heavenly Mother
- Singing Roosters, Dark Dungeons, and Feet
- Holy Land Pilgrimage, Day 1
- Ascending Mount Tabor
- Caesarea Maritima
- Renewing Vows at Cana
Blog Posts about various places in the Holy Land:
- SS Elizabeth and Zechariah and the Church of the Visitation
- St Helena and the Triumph of the Cross
- St. Matthew, Capernaum, and the Call
- Mount Tabor and the Church of the Transfiguration
- Jerusalem’s Church of St Anne
- The Church of the Annunciation and the Church of St Joseph
- The History and Ruins of Jerusalem’s Temple
- Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and Shepherds’ Fields
- Ascending Mount Tabor
There are the blogs of others sharing their experience:
And my blog posts about pilgrimage in general:
You can go to the webpage I created for our pilgrimage here, which has the itinerary and all the info you need.
You can download the flier here.
Contact Select International Tours via email to sign up or get more info, or call them at 800-842-4842.
I hope you can make it!
The Assisi tour had not originally been on our itinerary. Our pilgrimage leader had squeezed it in at the last minute. We arrived in Assisi mid-morning, and due to our guide’s too-tight scheduling, we had only a few hours before we would need to leave again. Our hotel, the Michelangelo, back in Rome about two hours drive away, was preparing a traditional Christmas Eve dinner, and we needed to be there in time to eat it and then walk the few blocks to St. Peter’s for the evening’s main event and the focal point for my long-planned trip to Italy — the opening of the Holy Door and Midnight Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II to inaugurate the Holy Year, the Jubilee 2000.
I’d booked two tours back to back. The first was advertised to be a Catholic pilgrimage to Rome for the launching of the Holy Year at St. Peter’s. The Catholic group was returning to the states on Christmas Day. Three days later, after a planned side trip to Ravenna to see the mosaics, my son and I would join up with another tour group and go to Venice, Florence, Padua and Milan.
Even though my stay in Assisi was brief and botched and harried, I still remember it as a high point of my life. Especially because, even after such a short visit, I feel that made the acquaintance of Francis, the patron saint of Assisi from the 13th century. So much so that every once in a while, I still think his name as I would that of a beloved friend: “Francis,” “dear Francis.”
Our first stop was just outside of Assisi, at the town of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where we got out of our motor coach to visit the basilica of the same name. The area is called the Porziuncola, or little portion. St. Francis and his monks used to worship in a tiny chapel called Saint Mary of the Angels (which is what Santa Maria degli Angeli means in English). And St. Francis and his friends had lived close by in primitive little huts.
We stood together outside in the cold for a few minutes while our leader made arrangements about something or other with someone inside the basilica. A few of the group drifted off to get something hot to drink.
Around the little traffic circle where we waited there were some interesting sights to see. A 60ish Italian woman on a bicycle wearing a kerchief, a trench coat, and sensible shoes waited for the light to change. A manager scene was set up in the middle of the traffic island.
Since it was the day before Christmas, and since it was St. Francis who first conceived the idea of celebrating the birth of Jesus by reproducing the manger, naturally we saw several mangers in the area that day.
In an earthquake in Assisi in 1997, interior walls in the basilica where we were waiting to get in and in the Basilica di San Francesco (Basilica of St. Francis) crumbled. By the time of our trip, restoration had been almost completed on both basilicas.
But the reconstruction was not quite done. In the area in front of St. Mary of the Angels, fences of orange netting surrounded piles of pieces that had not yet been restored to the fallen walls. And, as I found out later, even though there was no evidence visible to the tourist, thousands of people left homeless by the earthquake would be just getting by in temporary housing for many years to come.
We couldn’t take photos inside the basilicas, but I can tell you that once we got inside St. Mary of the Angels, we found a surprise. Dwarfed in the middle of the floor of the huge basilica stands the tiny little chapel (now richly decorated) where St. Francis worshipped with his monks. A few yards away is the even smaller Chapel of the Transition, built later around the hut where St. Francis died. When he knew he was about to die, he stripped himself naked and laid on the bare ground covered with a borrowed cloth, wanting to keep faith with his beloved Lady Poverty until the end.
What would St. Francis think of all the splendors of marble and art erected in honor of his memory? I wondered. I know I am not at all original in noticing these contrasts, but they stayed on my mind as we got back into the tour bus and rode up the long hill to Assisi.
It is an understatement to say that in the middle ages cities prized their saints. The Catholic Encyclopedia (in the online 1907 edition) records that during Francis’ last days, the city fathers of Assisi dispatched strong guards with him wherever he went, to prevent his body being stolen by Perugia, a rival city, “which would thus enter into possession of his coveted bones.” Francis told his followers that he wanted to be buried in the Colle d’Inferno, a hill outside the city where criminals were executed. Did they listen? The answer came with the sight of the double basilica as it came into view at a turn in the road. Obviously not.
In 1236, ten years after Francis’s death, one basilica was built and then later another basilica was built on top of it, and together they make up the impressive building we saw that day. The double basilica was built to accommodate the huge throngs that came to honor Francis, whose bones are now in a crypt beneath the lower basilica.
We rushed up from the parking lot into the lower basilica. Before we went to the upper basilica, some of us did a detour when we saw a sign leading to the crypt.
St. Francis’s bones are in a simple wooden coffin above an altar on which many long white tapers are burning. I dropped a donation into a slot, and then I stood in line with others to lay candles for each of my relatives and some friends in a basket at the altar. A monk at the desk to the left rises every so often looking bored, and he blows out the current set of candles, replacing them with others from the basket.
It was a relief to pause and kneel there peacefully for a while close to the physical remains of the holy man of Assisi and to pray. That’s when I was surprised to feel I was present with him; in some indescribable gentle way, he became my fast friend at that instant. From what happened in my heart there that day and the similar feeling of meeting that occurred when I got close to the bones of St. Peter on another day on the same tour, I came to understand more deeply why the Catholic Church has so much veneration for relics of dead saints. Twice in my experience, being close to the physical remains of the saint brought me close in spirit to the saint himself.
At the museum at the crypt next door to the chapel is another striking relic, one of the actual patched robes that St. Francis wore. Two donation boxes stand at the door of the museum, one for the restoration of the art works, one for the housing of those left homeless by the quake. I left more money in the second one.
Our group regathered in a nearby cafe for a quick snack and a brief introduction to our local guide. Everyone was surprised when I ordered gelato, but that was my first and it turned out to be my only chance to try the authentic Italian iced treat. Public opinion was right this time, the cold pistachio gelato did not sit well with the cold of Christmas Eve.
Once we left the basilica, we saw hardly any other tourists. We trooped behind the local guide through picturesque cobbled narrow streets to the main square, where we peeked into the Temple of Minerva from the time of Augustus, now covered with a church called Santa Maria sopra Minerva (St. Mary over Minerva). We walked past a prespe, a life sized manger scene in the town square.
As we walked around, local passers-by and our guide greeted each other with the Italian Christmas greeting, “Buon Natale. Buone Feste. Tanti Auguri.” which, loosely translated means, “Happy Christmas, Good Feasts, Good Wishes for the New Year.”
After we parted with our local guide, our pilgrimage leader told us we could go shopping and to meet her back at the bus in an hour.
My son found a little shop that sold address books and sketchbooks made from hand-made paper and called me in because he knew I’d like it. After a while he went out to look at something else. When he came in again to find me (he told me this later), I must have been in the back of the shop, and he didn’t see me, so he left again, and then we lost track of each other.
After I emerged with some gifts, I strolled with my camera in hand, stopped at a few more shops, where I was always the only customer, always heading back down the hill towards where the bus was parked. At the chamber of commerce I met a nun whose order runs a guesthouse, whose business was only just then picking up again after the quake. We both got a free poster there, my favorite souvenir. The poster shows the basilica and the ancient forts above the city against a blue and starry sky. Natale in Assisi, 1999, it says: Christmas in Assisi, 1999.
My progress was slow, because my feet hurt, because my path was down very steep streets, and because there was always another photo to take.
I wasn’t sure of the time because I didn’t have a watch, but I thought I was doing all right. I also thought I’d run into my son any time soon.
When I did catch up with my son again, I was standing at a fork in the road at the bottom of one steep street. I was wavering about which of two possible even steeper streets in front of me would be the right way down to the parking lot.
My son was frantic. It was 10 minutes past the hour. At 5 minutes past, the pilgrimage leader had announced to everyone in the bus that she would give me 5 more minutes and then leave without me.
It goes without saying that the ride back to Rome was tense. The leader was pouting because she had had her heart set on squeezing in one more stop, at a chocolate factory, and my tardiness had foiled her plans. Everyone was mad at me. I guess they wanted to stop at the chocolate factory too. I was sorry that my dawdling had made my son upset, but I was angry too, at the tour leader and at the mad rush she was putting us through that day.
Just for the drama of it, I sometimes try to imagine what it would have been like to have been stranded as a stranger in Assisi on a cold Christmas eve with very little Italian and no way to get back to Rome.
But of course, that didn’t happen.
The sunset over the Umbrian hills was gorgeous.
Back at Rome, we rushed some more. We rushed to dress before dinner, rushed through the dinner, greatly offending the waiters who watched us with disdain while we gulped the food the chef had specially prepared for Christmas Eve, and rushed out the door. Then we rushed to St. Peter’s Square. And then we waited.
Our leader had assured us we had tickets to be inside the basilica for the Mass, but the day before the organizers had told her that the seating was first come first served. After more than an hour in line with thousands of others, we finally got directed into seats outside, after all. At least there was no more rushing. We stayed right there in the same seats in the chill night air until the mass was over at 2 a.m. on Christmas morning.
We could see the ceremonies that were going on inside on giant TV screens near the Holy Door. We actually saw much more than we could have seen if we had been inside. At one point, the Pope walked past the open door, and then stopped and waved to us all outside. The 40 degree temperatures and discomforts didn’t matter. We all cheered.
I didn’t even mind very much that I came down the flu and spent several days during the next week in bed in my hotel room. I could hear the bells of St. Peter’s a few blocks away as I drifted in and out of sleep.
Tucking in my three-year-old Godson the other night, I reminded him of the fact that I am his Godfather. His immediate, passionate response at once brought me to laughter and convicted me.
“You’re not my Godfather! (long pause) Jesus is my God-Father!”
Let the reader understand, my statement had incredibly upset, even angered this child. I imagined a miniature Caiphas rending his clothes at my seemingly grave blasphemy. In his mind, I had called myself God. He couldn’t abide the outrage. Little does he know the humor behind his ironic misunderstanding and conflation of the term Godfather with the common prayer phrase “Father-God.” At the same time, the gap in his understanding exists from my own inept God-parenting. I have not given him a good enough category for what “Godfather” means.
Why mention this anecdote? The story is instructive when considering my own relationship to God. Consider…My higher viewpoint and greater knowledge made my Godson’s ignorant rejection humorous and endearing. His rejection kindled the desire to reach out to him more and better. I wonder if, in God’s providence our own rejections and foibles are as humorous for their being so ill-informed and weak. I was not threatened by my Godson’s rejection, in part because of the near inevitability of his eventually understanding the distinction between “Godfather” and “Father-God.” When it comes to God, however, our returns are by no means inevitable, yet God remains unthreatened by our passionate rejections, pitying my ignorance and patiently giving me (and other poor sinners) every opportunity to return to his kingdom. God’s patience is all the more incredible in light of the fact that my own rejection of God stems from sin rather than ignorance. While my Godson decried me due to a lack of knowledge, whenever I sin I reject God from a lack of love that amounts to contempt.
The whole episode reminded me, furthermore, of the second part of Evelyn Waugh’s classic Brideshead Revisisted. Waugh aptly titles part two, “A Twitch Upon the Thread,” (a reference to one of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories [1911, The Innocence of Father Brown]). For those who haven’t read Brideshead, I will say that it tells the story of the Flyte (Marchmain) family, including multiple members’ flight from and eventual return to God and his Church. At the end of part one, Cordelia’s dialogue with Charles Ryder suggests the higher viewpoint from which to see the wanderings and spurning many of the characters offer to God:
"They've closed the chapel at Brideshead, Bridey and the Bishop; Mummy's requiem was the last mass said there. After she was buried the priest came in -- I was there alone. I don't think he saw me--and took out the altar stone and put it in his bag; then he burned the wads of wool with the holy oil on them and threw the ash outside; he emptied the holy water stoup and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary and left the tabernacle open and empty, as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday. I suppose none of this makes any sense to you, Charles, poor agnostic. I stayed there till he was gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn't any chapel there any more, just an oddly decorated room. I can't tell you what it felt like. You've never been to Tenebrae, I suppose?" "Never." "Well, if you had you'd know what the Jews felt about their temple. Quomodo sedet sola civitas . . . it's a beautiful chant. You ought to go once, just to hear it." "Still trying to convert me, Cordelia?" "Oh, no. That's all over, too. D'you know what Papa said when he became a Catholic? Mummy told me once. He said to her: 'You have brought back my family to the faith of their ancestors.' Pompous, you know. It takes people different ways. Anyhow, the family haven't been very constant, have they? There's him gone and Sebastian gone and Julia gone. But God won't let them go for long, you know. I wonder if you remember the story Mummy read us the evening Sebastian first got drunk -- I mean the bad evening. Father Brown said something like 'I caught him' (the thief) 'with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.'"
Each of the wayward Flytes feels God’s twitch upon the thread, quiet, almost imperceptible to any outside observer. For each of these family members, God’s gentle twitch came as an experience of great loss. For Cordelia, it’s the loss of the Eucharist from her home’s chapel; For Julia, it was sudden loss (at her brother’s strong word) of the ability to silence any longer her muted conscience ; for Sebastian, God’s twitch was the unjust loss of a poor soul whom he had learned to care for in time of need; and for the family patriarch, the twitch came at the loss of his battle with the flesh, realized in the humility of inevitably-approaching death. In their raging, their railing, their rejection of God, the Lord’s patient providence saw the ever-present opportunity for grace. Especially interesting is the twitch God makes upon the thread of the agnostic, Charles Ryder. With no conscience, no beloved, and no paralyzing fear of death, God twitches his soul by the loss of beauty and the loss of culture he sees in the destruction of the art and structure of Brideshead mansion and estate at the hands of the military. In their effort to protect the nation, they have, for Ryder, killed her soul to make room for a new generation of vacuous men without experience of transcendent beauty. The moment of conversion then requires a moment of loss, because only in the loss of our idol (be it rebellious pride, inconstancy, confidence in the power of the flesh, or aesthetic culture), do we discover that God is our portion. He is the truth, goodness, and beauty each of us seeks.
Returning our wanderings, then, to where this blog started…Here, then, is my confidence as a parent, as a Godparent. There’s nothing I can do to make sure my children and Godchildren reign with the Lord in his coming Kingdom (pray God they do), but I must remember my role is to attest to and witness to the invisible line between their soul and their maker, between my soul and my maker, to invite them to be watchful and sensitive for God’s gentle twitch. Sever not the line, Lord, and twitch us back to Thyself, as deep cries out to deep.
This being the last weekend before Epiphany, it is likely the last Christmas parties will take place among those determined to celebrate the full twelve days of Christmas. Since I’ve been promising my great-grandmother’s recipe for natilla (my favorite Colombian Christmas dessert) since the posts about the Advent novena, I suppose it is now or never, in case anyone wants to get adventurous this weekend. Without further ado, I give you Balin’s Famous Natilla:
200 grams of cornstarch (sorry to get all metric on you, the equivalent is just about 7 oz)
8 cups of whole milk
1 block of panela/piloncillo (A dark brown block of highly unrefined sugar, which can often be found in the Hispanic Foods section of a regular grocery store. Goya is one of the most common brands. If the regular supermarket fails you, try a specialty store. You should find it in flat, round blocks, but if you find it in the cone-shaped version, then get two cones.)
2 cups of sugar
3-4 sticks of cinammon
3 tablespoons of butter
Ground cinnamon for decoration (to taste)
Mix cornstarch in 2 cups of milk and leave aside in a bowl. Break down the block of panela into smaller chunks and put them, along with the sticks of cinnamon, into the remaining 6 cups of milk in a large pot. Stirring constantly, begin heating up the milk using medium-low heat. Keep stirring until the panela dissolves fully (this may take a while, but you can do it faster by breaking down the pieces of panela with your spoon once they start soaking through). Make sure the milk does not get too close to boiling until the panela is dissolved. Once it dissolves, pour in the sugar and the 2 cups of milk mixed with cornstarch. Turn up the heat to medium-high. Keep stirring constantly, and scrape the bottom of the pot with your spoon. Remove the cinnamon sticks before the mixture gets thick. Once the mixture has thickened to the point of a cream, add the butter. Keep stirring quickly until you can see the bottom of the pan when scraping with your spoon, and then pour the mixture into a large serving dish. Sprinkle lightly with cinnamon and let it cool for at least an hour.
In case you need some inspiration, a reader wrote to me recently, saying that not only had she and her boyfriend done the Advent novena together, but they had even dug up recipes for natilla and Colombian buñuelos online and tried them out. Here’s to making it yearly tradition!
We belong to a story. We might describe it as a fairy tale that happens to be true. In this fairy tale, each of us has our beginning and end, only, the end isn’t really the end. We have the opportunity to live happily ever after. God draws us into his Kingdom to live with him forever. There is a progression to the story, yes, but in the end the happiness that is offered to us has no outer limit. St. Augustine wrote what is considered the first autobiography, his Confessions. In fact, it would be more accurate to describe the Confessions as the story of how God works through time to direct the life of a person he loves to a happy ending. God does this for Augustine and he will do it for you, because God loves you, too.
Many of us, I suspect, feel vaguely hemmed in by the ticking of the clock, limited by human finitude, perhaps even afraid that in the end there is nothing left and our story will turn out to have been meaningless. If we read Augustine closely, though, we will be reminded that God is the author of the story. He stands outside time and writes it by the power of his will. He brings all things to himself and imbues human time with the eternal. Our lives, marked as they are by a succession of moments, even as fleeting as the grass of the field, are given eternal significance.
The Confessions is a fascinating bit of writing that never fails to delight. Augustine dedicates book XI in particular to examining questions of time and eternity. As we ring in a new year, perhaps his thoughts will be helpful for us to consider the way in which we celebrate the passage of time.
Augustine begins by questioning if the experience of time is even in the divine repertoire, wondering if God understands the human calendar:
Lord, since eternity is Thine, art Thou ignorant of what I say to Thee?
The great saint then makes a complaint that all of most certainly have also; it is not fair that we live in a limited succession of moments. There are not enough hours in the day to pray and study as much as we want! (Okay, perhaps our complaints about lack of time and the uses we would put extra hours to are not so noble, but moving on…) Does God understand how difficult it is to know him, in all of his atemporal darkness? Perhaps he understands perfectly well and is more than willing to assist, but a prayer is nevertheless required:
Grant thereof a space for our meditations in the hidden things of Thy law, and close it not against us who knock.
We find a way to understand the eternal even as we are in the midst of temporality. The only key to the door of wisdom is found with Our Lord, who himself entered time and experienced it with us. He fundamentally reorients the way we live in time because he somehow fits eternity into finitude. This is the miracle of the Incarnation. Augustine marvels,
Thou callest us then to understand the Word, God, with Thee God, Which is spoken eternally, and by It are all things spoken eternally.
Our Lord is a Word spoken in time that has infinite reverberations. Further, God creates the Church, the living Body of Christ, to bestow upon us graces that are foretastes of eternity. Sacraments actually create grace in our hearts that springs from the endless love of God. To have such grace in our hearts? To claim with a straight face that the God of the universe dwells in you? This ought to be impossible.
Our Lord chooses to work heavenly reality directly into ours by taking on flesh. He does not come to set up an eternal throne here on earth but chooses instead to live within the painful limitations of the human calendar. He is humbled to be a helpless child requiring the assistance of parents for survival. He experiences how all things come to an end and how the encroachment of death brings finality to our time here in these bodies. Each of us is granted a succession of moments, no more, no less. There is a beginning and an end. Within those moments there is a hidden path to eternity that we must unlock. He is that key.
Augustine writes that Our Lord,
Lingered not, but ran, calling aloud by words, deeds, death, life, descent, ascension; crying aloud to us to return unto him. And he departed from our eyes, that we might return into our heart, and there find him. For he departed, and lo, he is here.
Those who belong to the Lord are beholden by a different sort of calendar than that which governs the business of this world, one in which holidays truly are holy days instead of an equivocation that turns sacred feasts into an excuse to stay out all night drinking champagne and watching a giant, lighted ball on a pole. Holidays are not about us anymore. The Incarnation changes everything. We live by a calendar that sanctifies time and makes life a pilgrimage, the goal of which is not erased by death but rather finds its fulfillment in death as a personal encounter with eternity. Our Lord was made man in time, so too are we. He ascended to live with God the Father in eternity. So too will we.
All of this is something of a mystery. We feel the pull of eternity. We can partially grasp the concept with the intellect. We believe in it by faith. As long as we are inside of time, though, our knowledge is notional; we will never be able to understand the whole of it and will never have more than a guess at what eternity may be like. To truly grasp it, we must stand outside of it.
Augustine won’t let the difficulty stop him from at least trying! He considers time in many different facets, discussing in turn what it means for the world to have a beginning, how the past and future relate to the present, and how we measure the succession of moments. He feels the frustration of not having answers to his queries, writing,
My soul is on fire to know this most intricate enigma. Shut it not up, O Lord my God, good Father; through Christ I beseech Thee, do not shut up these usual, yet hidden things, from my desire, that it be hindered from piercing into them; but let them dawn through Thy enlightening mercy, O Lord. Whom shall I enquire of concerning these things?
It perhaps seems to us that his concerns are arcane and pointless, so many angels dancing on the head of a pin. But Augustine was writing at a time when many heretics denied the reality of eternity. In their opinion, God must have had a beginning because all other things have a beginning. Others believed in eternity but failed to see how it is possible for it to have any connection to time. It is too different. The mistake they make is to misunderstand the nature of divine Being. He is the one who Is. His Being is not like ours and his manner of existence not like ours and yet he shares it with us and we participate in it. Our Being is neither the same as God’s nor completely different, but at the time of the writing of the Confessions these are theological points yet to be fully explained. Augustine goes some way towards doing so by first establishing the importance of holding to the real possibility of eternity and its connection with time. In doing so, he vouchsafes for us our own future.
I do not fully understand all of his thoughts, but appreciate that they remain applicable in different contexts today. In modern life, we too deny eternity even if we do so implicitly. There are various obsessions amongst us for living only for “the moment”, the use of medicine to live forever, surgery and cosmetics to avoid the appearance of old age, using contraceptives to deny the generative nature of the marriage bond, tattoos to assert independence and ownership of the body, turning funerals into long eulogies that avoid mourning and actually praying for our deceased, and so on. We are destroying ourselves. We forget that there is a God outside of time to whom we are beholden, live our entire story only for present pleasure, fail to contemplate the end, and so ultimately deny the Author. We end up either foolishly attempting to manipulate time or denying that it exists altogether. This is no fairy tale. It is a modern, nihilistic bore.
The Confessions provides a different perspective for the Church. She is a supernatural communion of saints who march forth to an eternal destiny. For us, the New Year with all its hopeful expectation is already reality through the steady pilgrimage of the Church to Heaven. New Year Resolutions are always so disappointing; we don’t lose the weight or stop smoking magically after January 1. But in the Mass our hope for the future is exceeded. We do taste eternity. We do commune with the saints. It is a wonderful coincidence that the New Year happens to be a feast in honor of Mother Mary. She, having already died (probably) and been bodily assumed (certainly) into heaven, is already eternally living in the beatific vision. When we look to her we see what we will be. It is a New Year Resolution already fulfilled on our behalf by Our Lord!
Our Lord comes like a thief in the night, breaking all rules, and bending time about him in such a way that during Advent it folds in upon itself and becomes completely shattered by the Christmas miracle. In this way the Church calendar contains a description of eternity, like an unbroken spiral in ascent to heaven. Contained within the first advent is already the seed and in some sense the completion of the second advent. The end of the world is upon us, released from the chubby, already-pierced grasp of a babe lying in a manger. For this reason St. Paul is quite clear that this is already the end times. We are held in the balance of the two comings of Christ, a timeless state in which we become what we already are. Sainthood is all but guaranteed by his promise and yet it is such a struggle to get there!
Augustine turns to God,
Oh how high art Thou, and yet the humble in heart are Thy dwelling-place; for Thou raisest up those that are bowed down, and they fall not, whose elevation Thou art.
In the end, the secret to living life to the fullest is not grasping time tightly and pretending that we never die, but a letting go, a humbling recognition that death brings us all low, and allowing the God who dies and destroys death and will come again to bring us into eternity to live with him forever. At this very moment in time we make one simple request: Come soon, Lord Jesus.
My sincerest apologies to all of you faithfully following the novena. It was simply impossible for me finish the translation for today and at the same time get ready for Christmas! I trust you the already existing translation, found here (scroll down to Ninth Day), will get you through tonight. I promise that by next year the couple of days that were missed this time around will all be done.
For the rest of the readings, click here.
P.S.: I was delighted to hear from a reader that not only did the novena, but actually went ahead and tried making some of the traditional foods that go with it. I will post the pictures she sent me in a couple of days, along with my great-grandmother’s recipe for natilla, so you can enjoy it during the Christmas season (remember that it doesn’t end tomorrow, it starts tomorrow).
My writer-friend Juanita McGregor draws a lot of her inspiration from holidays, seasons, and observances. Almost any time the schools are closed, she delights my inbox with some toothy morsel: pithy or poignant, poetry or prose. I liked her Christmas vignette enough, I wanted to share it with all of you.
IN FOR THE LONG HAUL
By Juanita McGregor
Odors of used tissue and drying oils teased his nose as he opened the door. The once taut rope of the curtained alcove sagged under the weight of rusty black pants and a wrinkled red striped robe.
Father Time sat before the lighted mirror surrounded by make-up.
“Hi, Old Man.”
“What say ye, Christmas? Come on in. Have a seat.“
Pulling a chair from against the wall, he watched as Time’s practiced fingers filled the deep furrows on his face. Pancake once smoothed, powdered, and painted showed the man of March.
Sounds from the stage dribbled through the dingy corridors. Shortly the one-legged stage manager would knock and Father Time would enter stage left.
Makeup complete, Time pulled on jeans with steel cutting creases and a brown and gray plaid Ralph Lauren sweater.
“What’s in the house?”
“Dickens ‘Christmas Carol’, modern dress. The company’s hired 2015 to understudy. The kid’s dressing room is upstairs. Saw him standing in the wings yesterday. Just enough stubble on his chin; crisp, pale yellow shirt hanging out but his blazer’s cashmere and the shoes, high tops.”
Time walked through the memory: the new kid watching a tattered Marley burdened by frack or not, Ferguson, starvation, the Middle East, terrorism…
“Marley’s butt’s dragging and the kid smirked! Talk about condescension. I’ve seen his resume; you’d think that drama school…
Whoa! What am I talking about? See that photo taped to the mirror? That’s me. Starry eyed as fifteen and convinced my own broom would sweep clean.”
Time picked up his muffler.
” I’m only doing one gig, but you signed a long term contract. Any regrets?”
Looking at the light reflecting from the bottom of the nearly empty paint pots, Christmas felt his cell vibrate: see stage manager.
Hearing uneven footsteps, he grinned at the old man, jammed the phone in his pocket, and said, “Nope.”
Mary and Joseph have arrived in Bethlehem seeking lodging in the inns and houses of the town. They are unable to find any, however, either because they are full or because of their own poverty. Still, nothing can shake the inner peace of those whose gaze is fixed upon God.
If Joseph was perhaps troubled and saddened out of concern for Mary and her unborn Child, as they were rejected time and again, he also smiled in holy tranquility as he gazed upon his most chaste wife. The sad noise of every door that was shut before them was at a same time sweet music to his ears.
This was what unborn Christ had come to seek. He had taken human form in His desire for these humiliations. O, Divine Child of Bethlehem, these days, which so many have spent in revelry and relaxation, your parents spent in toil and mortification! The spirit that ruled in Bethlehem is the spirit of a world that has forgotten God. How many times have we not let this same spirit rule within us?
It is the eve of the Nativity and the sun sets behind the roofs of Bethlehem. Its last rays touch the rocky hills around the town, turning them golden. Rough men rush to and fro, passing by Our Lord without care or notice in the streets of that remote town. They shut their doors when they see his mother at the threshold.
The vault of the heavens grows purple over the hills and knolls where shepherds watch their flocks. One by one, the stars begin to shimmer. A few more hours, and the Eternal Word will be present among men.
My apologies. Unfortunately, I once again was unable to finish the translation for the day’s meditation in time. In order that you may continue the praying novena, click here for an alternate translation (just scroll down to “Seventh Day”). This post will be updated as soon as I finish translating Day 7 (I am happy to report that Day 8 will certainly be posted tomorrow). For all the other prayers, click here.