St. Martin’s Lent begins

Today’s feast, St. Martin of Tours, has gradually become a big deal for me.  Devotion to St. Martin was huge in the Middle Ages, with some 3,660 churches dedicated to him in France alone.  St. Martin’s Day or Martinmass was a feast day marking the beginning of winter, a time to drink, celebrate, and lay in the winter’s provisions. Continue reading “St. Martin’s Lent begins”

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The Annunciation and the Death of the Christ

It’s an odd year. Because Good Friday happened to fall on March 25, we end up celebrating the Annunciation in April.

According to the usual account, it’s a strange coincidence. Christians instituted Christmas on December 25 to combat the pagan feast of the sun. If you count back nine months from December 25, you land on March 25 as the date of the Incarnation and of Gabriel’s message. And as luck would have it, sometimes Good Friday falls on that day. But the usual account is wrong.

The Annunciation falling on Good Friday is no coincidence at all. Continue reading “The Annunciation and the Death of the Christ”

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Palm Sunday: History, Mystery, Practice

[This was originally posted a year ago, but when I found myself reviewing it for my own sake, I realized that I should re-post it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.]

With the ceremonies of Palm Sunday, Holy Week begins. The Liturgy of the Hours uses a new antiphon for the Invitatory, and the chants or hymns for the various hours are different. The readings take on new themes.  In various ways, the Church encourages us to see the coming week is a distinct time with its own character. Continue reading “Palm Sunday: History, Mystery, Practice”

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Lenten veils are a bigger deal than you think

When you enter a Catholic church in Passiontide, what leaps out at you is that all the statues and religious images are veiled in purple cloths.  When the veiling of images began in the tenth century, it was part of something even more striking:  a large veil completely separated the main altar from the rest of the church.

This became the custom throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. It is still the custom in some parts of Austria and Germany, where the huge veil is known as the fastentuch, the “fasting cloth.” Continue reading “Lenten veils are a bigger deal than you think”

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The Ash Wednesday Riddle

Yesterday I had to take my daughter out of CCD class to bring her to Mass for Ash Wednesday. Tina, at six years old, is no fan of the sacred liturgy: she dozed through most of it, and I had to wake her up for the reception of ashes. But she had made it clear that leaving her in CCD where she wouldn’t get the ashes would be a ba-a-a-ad idea, and as she walked back to the pew with a smudge on her forehead she just lit up.

My theory: She never gets to receive communion, so getting something along with everyone else makes her feel big. Continue reading “The Ash Wednesday Riddle”

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Four reasons I sing at Mass

Yesterday after Mass, a parishioner commented that he could hear me singing during the liturgy. I’ve gotten that comment a lot over the years, always as a compliment—of course, if anyone is annoyed by my loud voice then they’re not likely to say anything. But I always sing with gusto, whether I like the music or not, for four reasons:

1. Someone has to. I look around the church, and most people aren’t even holding hymnals, much less trying to sing. It’s awkward. Plus, a few times I have been stopped by people who say they are able to carry the tune and sing along because they can follow my voice. Continue reading “Four reasons I sing at Mass”

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Children en Mass

As a 6th grade CCD teacher, I found myself yesterday afternoon at a Children’s Mass. My reactions to Masses geared toward children typically range from fatheaded (“Never!”) to broadminded (“Fine as long as I’m not around”). About half an hour into his homily Father warned the kids not to go to the bathroom during the canon of the Mass, and my 11-year-old son leaned over to whisper, “If we ever get to that part!” Kids and keepers alike began to unravel.

But lo and behold! We did get to the canon, and as the solemn tones of that august prayer rolled over the pews the seething mass of kinderfolk settled into an uncharacteristic moment of focus. Like a vision, awareness suddenly gripped me of the baptismal character at work in each tiny head. Continue reading “Children en Mass”

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Poems for the Feast of the Holy Innocents

When I pointed out this morning that our baby Matthew would have been killed had he been in those villages near Bethlehem, my fifteen-year-old daughter Bernadette was thoughtful.  This evening, she gave me a set of poems she had written, and I want to share them here:

The Mother

Have you ever seen a baby’s smile light up the room?
Seen sheer happiness for no more reason than a laugh?
Have you ever heard a baby’s song without a tune?
Or, playful, fought him for your bread, at least a half?

Continue reading “Poems for the Feast of the Holy Innocents”

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When the last became first: the feast of the Holy Innocents

Four groups made up the dramatis personae of the medieval cathedral: aside from the bishop himself, there were priests, deacons, subdeacons, and members of the choir. During the Christmas season, each group claimed its day: deacons of course celebrated specially on the feast of St. Stephen, priests celebrated on the feast of St. John, the boys of the choir had their day of glory on the feast of the Holy Innocents, and the subdeacons claimed the feast of the circumcision. The choir boys’ special day led to one of the most beautiful and yet surprising customs of the middle ages, the boy bishop.

This Advent I treated myself to Neil Mackenzie’s delightful book, The Medieval Boy Bishop. Mackenzie offers a panoramic view, explaining from source texts how the “boy bishop” custom operated in England and in countries all across Europe. The essential idea was expressed by an official at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1263:

Continue reading “When the last became first: the feast of the Holy Innocents”

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On the Feast of Stephen

The Breviary begins today with this invitatory: “Come let us worship the newborn Christ, who has given the glorious crown to St. Stephen.” In the book of Acts, where we read about Stephen’s martyrdom, nothing suggests a connection to the newborn Christ in particular, but the fact that his feast day has been right after Christmas since the liturgical year first took shape led to the tradition that the three days after Christmas bring three “companions of Christ” around the crib to adore the infant God.

The three companions, according to a medieval commentary, represent the three kinds of martyrs. First we have Stephen, who was willing to die for Christ and was in fact killed; tomorrow we have St. John, who was willing to die for Christ but was not in fact killed; and then we have the Holy Innocents, who were in fact killed for Christ but were too young to be willing. Today’s invitatory connects the newborn Christ to the first kind of martyr. Tomorrow’s invitatory turns to the default invitatory used for every Apostle, but the invitatory for the Holy Innocents sounds like today’s: “Come, let us worship the newborn Christ, who crowns with joy these children who died for him.”

Continue reading “On the Feast of Stephen”

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