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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Memories on the Feast of St. Nicholas

The tomb of St. Nicholas of Myra had long been a popular pilgrimage destination, but when sailors from Bari, Italy stole his relics from the Turkish-occupied town, devotion to St. Nicholas took off in the west.  Given the stories of his generosity and his love for children, it was natural that St. Nicholas should surround himself with the aura and the legends of Father Christmas, a lingering memory of Norse legend.  Within a couple of hundred years, the Feast of St. Nicholas was a landmark in the Advent season, hailing the election of the Boy Bishop (more on this character later) and the exchange of Christmas gifts.

Since my childhood was not spent in the Church, the first time I encountered any celebration of St. Nicholas’ Day was when I visited my soon-to-be wife’s family.  Later, when we lived in Gaming, Austria, we experienced the intensity of medieval devotion to St. Nicholas.  A friend who was a boy in Gaming around that time has posted his vivid memory of Nicholas and the Krampus here–you can see what I mean by “intense”!  Our first daughter was a baby at the time, and we realized that we just had to stay inside.  Krampus was too much.

P1010528
This bas relief of bishop Nicholas of Myra is nearly a foot tall.

Once back in the states, we brought new fervor to our celebration of St. Nicholas’ Day, although we haven’t opted to have a demon chase our children with whips.  Instead, we bought a giant cookie mold of the bishop Nicholas from houseonthehill.net; since the cookies need time to age, we make them a couple of weeks ahead of time.  The night of December 5, the kids make gingerbread cookies for their stockings.

In the morning, the stockings are hung by the fire place–the P1010526beautiful, hand-crafted stockings my mother has lovingly made for each child–and in the stockings are cookies, some chocolate coins to remember the story of St. Nicholas’ gifts, and a small gift.  Typically, the stockings buy time for my wife and me to get up slowly and make breakfast at a more leisurely pace.

In the afternoon, we’ll make hot cocoa and eat the giant Nicholas cookies.  I like to give at least one giant cookie away, if I can.  Because I’m into medieval customs these days, our background music will be an album of medieval folks songs for the feast of St. Nicholas.

 

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St. Martin of Tours and advent of Advent

If you pray the breviary regularly, you get a glimpse into liturgical history. Even today, if almost all the readings and prayers for a saints’ day are particular to the day rather than drawn from the “commons” in the back then it’s a safe bet this saint was a big deal in the Middle Ages.

Pretty much everything in the breviary is special for St. Martin. He was much loved across Christian Europe, and in the decades leading up to the year 600 dioceses all over the west adopted the practice of fasting from St. Martin’s day until Christmas on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, in imitation of the forty days before Easter. It was known as “St. Martin’s Lent,” and was later abbreviated to four weeks to become what we know as the Advent Season.

In keeping with the day before a fast, Martinmas was a day of feasting. Farmers slaughtered their meat animals and, incidentally, paid their taxes and tithes; children wandered from door to door begging for alms like trick-or-treaters today; bon fires blazed, goose was consumed, and a good time was had by all.

Even though Martinmas is no longer the liturgical beginning of Advent, it still works for me like a signpost: “Start thinking about Advent and Christmas!” Time to make those Christmas lists, think about Advent resolutions, and make sure you fixed that Advent decoration that broke last year. Here in the Holmes house, it is a doubly special day because our fourth child, Regina, was born on this day ten years ago. Wednesdays are too full for partying, but come Saturday we’ll have a delayed Martinmas celebration with a bon fire, hot dogs, music, entertainment, birthday cake and ice cream, and presents for the queen of the feast.

So read about St. Martin and find out why the people of the Middle Ages loved him so much. If nothing else, walk around today with a festive spring in your step! And remember that he was considered the patron saint of taverns.

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5 Steps from All Souls’ to All Saints’

November seems like the perfect place for All Souls’ Day. Although a time a harvest, it is also a time of dwindling life and light, a time that signifies the approach of death. Coming immediately after All Saints’ Day, when the Church Militant venerates the Church Triumphant and those in glory pray for us, All Souls’ Day has us attend to the remaining part of the Mystical Body.

The placement of All Souls’ Day right after All Saints’ Day also makes sense from a historical perspective. According to Dom Gregory Dix, our liturgical veneration of the saints is ultimately rooted in an early belief in purgatory. He traces the history this way:

  1. The earliest Christians believed that the deceased faced the possibility of purgative fires. So when a Christian died, it was customary to offer prayers for that person on the anniversary of his or her death.
  2. When a Christian was martyred, the community felt strange about praying for his soul, because it was confident the deceased had bypassed purgatory entirely. On the other hand, it was customary to do something on the anniversary of a Christian’s death. So instead of praying for the martyr’s soul, they would offer prayers in celebration of what the martyr had done. (This is captured in the Martyrdom of Polycarp.)
  3. In a kind of Christianized civic spirit, Christian communities celebrated their local martyrs in a regular cycle.
  4. In the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem began celebrating all the great biblical saints, because for someone living in Jerusalem all the biblical saints were local.
  5. When the many pilgrims to Jerusalem brought this practice back to their various homes, suddenly a lot of communities were celebrating saints that were not local to them. Thus was born the universal calendar of saints.

So in a kind of order of discovery, All Souls’ Day is prior to All Saints’ Day: we discovered Masses in honor of the triumphant by realizing we weren’t comfortable counting them as suffering. But in another order, All Saints’ Day is first: we look to the goal first and then pray that our suffering brothers and sisters will reach it; all of us who can pray, which includes us on earth and our forerunners in heaven, first unite together and then, together, pray for the suffering deceased.

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Saints of the Bible: A Complete List of Their Feasts in the Old and New Calendars

Before the amazing 4th century, Christians were parochial and even patriotic in their veneration of saints. Rome celebrated the martyrs who had died at Rome, Constantinople celebrated the martyrs who had died at Constantinople, Antioch celebrated the martyrs who had died at Antioch, and so on. It never occurred to the folks in Rome to celebrate the saints of Antioch, or vice versa: celebrating a saint involved walking out to see his tomb. But in the 4th century a unique group of saints broke this pattern and set us on the path to the celebration of all saints. Who were they?

Abraham IconThe saints of the Bible.

The saints of the Bible were familiar names throughout the Church. Texts like Hebrews 11 and Sirach 44-50, read everywhere, held up the great men and women of Salvation History as examples to follow and heroes to venerate. For the church in Jerusalem, however, the saints of Scripture were also the local martyrs: just as Rome had a list of days for celebrating the martyrs of Rome, Jerusalem had a cycle of liturgical commemorations of the biblical saints. When 4th-century pilgrims brought Jerusalem’s liturgies back to their home dioceses, they brought with them the practice of liturgically commemorating the biblical saints—and implicitly, they created the practice of commemorating saints that were not local. Unwittingly, they had planted the seed of the universal sanctoral cycle. Continue reading “Saints of the Bible: A Complete List of Their Feasts in the Old and New Calendars”

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