Christmastide: December 2008 Archives

The Very Little One

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This morning's Second Reading at Vigils was from the wonderful Christmas Sermons of Blessed Guerric of Igny (+1157), one of the Four Evangelists of the Order of Cîteaux. Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face (1873-1897) would have loved this sermon, as would have Dom Vital Léhodey (1857-1948)). I will not give the indescribably succulent Latin text today: just the translation I managed to cobble together.

The First Lesson

I give Thee thanks, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, that Thou hast hidden Thy wisdom from the wise and the prudent, and revealed it to the very little ones.
Yes, Father, this was pleasing in Thy sight; that to the very little was given the very little One Who was born for us! In fact, the greatness of the proud is exceedingly abhorrent to the humility of this very little One, and what is grand in the eyes of men is abominable in the presence of Him, Who being great in truth, made Himself very little for us. Make no mistake about it, this very little One is at home only among the very little, and it is only among the humble and the quiet-hearted that he takes His rest.
And therefore, just as the glory of the very little is to sing concerning HIm: Unto us a little child is born; so too, does He glory in them, saying: Behold, here I am, and the children that God has given me. In effect, so as to give His Son, become a little child, playmates of His own age, the Father willed that the very little Innocents should harbinger the glory of martyrdom. Thus does the Holy Spirit signify that the Kingdom of Heaven is for none save those who resemble them.

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The Second Lesson

If we want to like them, my brothers, let us return to Bethlehem again and again (iterum atque iterum), and let us gaze with loving attention upon this Word that has become flesh, the Immense God become a very little child: so that in this visible and abbreviated Word we might come to know the wisdom of God that has become all humility.
It is in the mightiness seen there that all mightiness willed to dwell for a time. For a time, supreme Wisdom willed to know nothing apart from this humility, which later on she would teach.
This very little One -- and I say this to my own affront -- this little One, I say, rightly and justly made Himself the master and lesson of humility, since having personal knowledge of it -- by His origin, He held it from His mother, and by His nature, from His Father -- He learned it nonethless, from His mother's womb, by all that He had to suffer.


The Third Lesson

He was born in a shelter for travelers, so that we, instructed by His example, might own ourselves to be strangers and pilgrims on earth. Moreover, He chose the last place of all, being laid in a manger; so that we might grasp David's oracle: I have chosen to be an outcast in the house of God, rather than to dwell in the tents of sinners. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes: so that we, having enough to cover ourselves, might be content therewith.
In all things, He was content with the poverty of His mother; in all things he was submissive to His mother, and this so that the very form of all religious life would be born in His birth.


My incomparable Saint Bernard (depicted above with Saint Ambrose in a 1475 painting by Francesco di Giorgio Martini) spoke so eloquently this morning of the two mercies of God: the first is His eternal mercy prior to the Incarnation, the second is His mercy after the descent of the Word into this vale of tears. Listen to him:

Seeking What Was Lost

Sed plasmator eorum Deus requirens quod perierat, opus suum miseratus prosecutus est, descendens et ipse misericorditer, quo illi ceciderant miserabiliter.

But God their Creator, seeking what was lost, mercifully followed His work, and came down in mercy to where they lay in misery.

To Liberate the Miserable

Voluit experire in se quod illi faciendo contra se merito paterentur, non simili quidem curiositate, sed mirabili caritate: non ut miser cum miseris remaneret, sed ut misericors factus miseros liberaret.

He willed to experience for Himself what they rightly deserved to suffer for having gone against Him, not out of a curiosity like theirs, but out of a wondrous charity; not so as to remain miserable with the miserable, but in order to liberate the miserable by becoming merciful.


A Mercy Better Adapted to Us

Factus inquam misericors, non illa misericordia quae felix manens habuit ab aeterno, sed quam mediante miseria reperit in habitu nostro. Porro pietatis opus quod per illam coepit, in ista perfecit: non quod sola illa non posset perficere, sed quia nobis not potuit absque ista sufficere. Utraque siquidem necessaria, sed nobis haec magis congrua fuit.
He became merciful, I say, not of that mercy which He, happy from all eternity, already had, but of the mercy which He found whilst, clothed in our flesh, He made his way in misery. Then, in this mercy did He make perfect the work begun by the Father's lovingkindness. It was not that this first mercy could not have sufficed, but because it would not have satisfied us. Both mercies are necessary, but the second of these is better adapted to us.
The Mercy Whose Mother is Misery
O ineffabilis pietatis excogitatio! Quando nos illam miram misericordiam cogitaremus, quam praecedens miseria non informat? Quando illam adverteremus incognitam nobis compassionem, quae non passione praeventa, cum impassibilitate perdurat? Attamen si illa, quae miseriam nescit, misericordia non praecesisset, ad hanc, cuius miseria mater est, non accessisset. Si non accessisset, non attraxisset; siu non attraxisset, non extrassiset. Unde autem extraxit, nisi de lacu miseriae et de luto faecis? Nec illam tamen misericordiam deseruit, sed hanc inseruit; non mutavit, sed multiplicavit, sicut scriptum est: Homines et iumenta salvabis, Domine, quemadmodum multiplicasti misericordiam tuam, Deus.

O design of ineffable tenderness! How could we have imagined the wondrous mercy of God, unless it had been first shaped by misery? How could we have turned toward a compassion unknown to us -- eternal and impassible in God -- had not His Passion gone before it? However, if this divine mercy that knew no misery had not been there in the beginning, the other mercy, the one whose mother is misery, would not have come. Had this mercy not come, it would not have have attracted us; had it not attracted us, it would not have extracted us. Extracted us out of what? Out of the pit of misery and the mire of mud. God has not forsaken His first mercy, but He has added to it; He has not changed it, but multiplied it, as it is written: Thou dost save man and beast alike, even as thou hast multiplied thy mercy, O God.

(Ex Tractatu sancti Bernardi abbatis De Gradibus humilitatis et superbiae)

At Vespers

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This painting of the adolescent Jesus is in the chapel of the Casa San Francesco in Carsoli (Aquila), Italy. I preached this evening at Pontifical Vespers in Tulsa's Cathedral of the Holy Family:

The Finding of Jesus in the Temple

On this the patronal feast of our Cathedral of the Holy Family, the Church gives us a liturgy that -- for all its richness -- is somewhat confusing: this because the liturgy of the Church is not chronological but theological. Three days after Christmas, while we are still enraptured by the Infant Jesus in the manger, the first antiphon this evening led us to the Temple in Jerusalem where, Mary and Joseph, aggrieved, relieved, and, I should think, a little vexed, find the twelve-year old Jesus "sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions."(Lk 2:46).

The Listening Word

The second antiphon antiphon showed us the twelve-year old Jesus returning to Nazareth with His Virgin Mother and with Saint Joseph, there to live subject to them, that is, in obedience. Pope John Paul II once defined obedience as "the listening that changes life." At Nazareth the Word humbles Himself to the point of listening -- of listening with such openness and receptivity, that He, the Unchanging Word of the Father, learns and changes and grows. Remaining truly God, He became truly Man, coming among us not as one having every human accomplishment, but as one bound and ready to learn those things that a boy learns from his mother, from his father, from his grandparents, his playmates, and his schoolmasters.

Saint Bernard puts it this way:

You see, then, that Christ in His one Person has two natures, one eternal, the other beginning in time. According to one He knows all things eternally; according to the other there are many things He first experienced in course of time.

Loved in Human Form

The third antiphon allowed us to catch a glimpse of the adolescent Jesus growing into manhood, increasing in wisdom and in stature, and in favour with God and man. Divine Wisdom, the Second Person of the Adorable Trinity, the Word made flesh, learns the wisdom of men, principally from his foster father Saint Joseph. The Immensity of God, having become a tiny child grows through boyhood and adolescence into manhood, growing in stature. The Son, loved by the Father from all eternity in the fiery embrace of the Holy Spirit, becomes lovable and loved in human form.

Contemplating Jesus

The Magnificat Antiphon returns to Luke 2:40, a passage that occurs after the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. It is almost identical to the third antiphon. It is as if the Church, fascinated by the mystery of God become a little baby, of the baby become a small boy, the boy an adolescent, and the adolescent a young man, cannot take her eyes, all the while from His Face, shining with the Wisdom and Beauty of His Divinity.

Christ Emptied Himself

Finally, a word about the Short Reading we heard: Philippians 2:6-7. This particular passage is one that the Church sings over and over again during the last days of Holy Week, in the shadow of the Cross. It is, in a way, curious that we should be given that same text this evening. "Christ Jesus, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men, and was found in human form" (Ph 2:6-7).

The Son, without leaving His eternal intimacy with the Father, descends nonetheless to cloister Himself for nine months in the Virgin's womb. His entrance into her womb is already oriented to the Cross, for He comes into the world as Priest, ready to offer Himself in Sacrifice. When He comes forth from her womb at Bethlehem, it is to pursue His ascent to the Cross, and His return to the Father, as the Bridegroom of His Church and the Head of His Mystical Body.

He Emptied Himself

In order that this immense circle of salvation might be realized in space and in time, He laid aside the immensity, the splendour, the weight of His glory, and, as Saint Paul says, "nothinged" Himself. Without ceasing to be God from God, Light from Light, and true God from true God, He poured Himself out into the form of a servant, the form of a child, the form of one from whom, on the day of His Passion, men would screen their faces.

From the Eucharist to the Trinity

This mysterious outpouring of the Divine Immensity into a form that is frail and vulnerable and small is, in some way, prolonged for our sakes, in the Most Holy Eucharist. There we see the God who would draw us after Him to the Father, in the Holy Spirit, become a no-thing in the eyes of the world, a mere round piece of bread. And yet this is our faith: that all that He is has replaced all that bread was, and that He, being there for us and with us, desires with a great desire to draw us to Himself and through Himself into the Divine Family of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The Authority of Lovers

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This is a homily I preached thirteen years ago to the Poor Ladies of Bethlehem Monastery in Barhamsville, Virginia. At the time, they were still living in their former monastery in Newport News.

The Logic of the Liturgy

The liturgy has a marvelous logic all its own. On this second day of the Christmas octave, Mother Church gives us an Easter Gospel! While we are yet at the manger, the liturgy compels us to run to the empty tomb! John, the disciple whom Jesus loved is there before us. His virginal love gave wings to his feet. “Draw me in your footsteps," says the bride of the Canticle, "let us run” (Ct 1:4). John is the first of those who “hasten with swift pace and light step and unstumbling feet,” arriving even before Peter, and yet deferring to him.

Peter and John

Hans Urs von Balthasar speaks of a double authority in the Church, a double ministry: the Petrine and Johannine. The Petrine authority is firmly established by Christ on the solid rock of Peter; it continues in the Church through the ministry of Peter’s successors, teaching, reproving, testing, correcting, forgiving and calling together in unity. The Johannine authority speaks with the voice of love, with the inimitable accents of direct experience. It is the authority of the saints and mystics, the authority of holiness, the authority of the greatly loved and of the great lovers. “ I belong to my love, and my love to me” (Ct 6:3).

What We Have Seen and Heard

The Church has need of both voices. She needs the strong, unwavering voice of Peter; she also needs the many-voiced Johannine chorus of those who sing: “Something which has existed since the beginning, that we have heard, and we have seen with our own eyes; that we have contemplated and touched with our own hands: the Word who is life--this is our theme. That life was made visible; we saw it and are giving our testimony. . . . We declare to you what we have seen and heard, so that you too may share our life” (1 Jn 1:1-3).

Love of Things Invisible

The Johannine chorus speaks with the unmistakable authority of those who have gone into the wine-cellar and rested beneath the banner of love (cf. Ct 2:4-5). Their breath is fragrant with honey and with the honeycomb, of wine and of milk: that is with the imperishable sweetness of the Holy Spirit, with the Blood of the Lamb and with the pure milk of the living Word of God. These are the ones who have eaten and drunk, drunk deeply (cf. Ct 5:1) of the streams of living water that flow ever fresh from the pierced Heart of the Bridegroom (cf. Jn 7:37-38). These are the descendants of Saint John the Beloved, those to whom the Father has given the eagle’s vision, those who are little enough and poor enough to be borne aloft and carried away into the “love of things invisible,” as the Christmas Preface puts it.


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The Prayer of the Faithful

The Prayer of the Faithful for the Ordinary Form of the Mass poses a number of complex problems. The lack of one or more stable texts, or of texts suitable for each Mass, composed according to the norms promulgated from Rome on 13 January 1965 and again on 17 April 1966, is not the least of these. Readers, tell me if you have a Prayer of the Faithful (Bidding Prayers or General Intercessions) at daily Mass? What is the state of current practice in parishes and other communities?

By Whom and in What Manner?

It should be noted that, at the beginning of the restoration of the so-called Universal Prayer, it was envisaged that the intentions would be sung following the models of chant given in the Graduale Simplex and that the act of proposing the intentions to the people would belong 1) to the priest himself in the style of the ancient Roman usage, or 2) to the deacon. Only in the absence of a deacon should the function be assigned to another "suitable person."


Msgr Klaus Gamber argues that, following the oldest traditions, the intentions should be proposed by the deacon standing in front of the altar and facing it. The practice of proposing the intentions from the ambo derives from the late-medieval French Prières du Prône. An instruction from the Congregation of Rites, dated 26 September 1964, says this:

In places where the Universal Prayer or Prayer of the Faithful is already the custom, it shall take place before the Offertory, after the Oremus, and, for the time being with the formularies in use in individual regions. The celebrant is to lead the prayer at either his chair, the altar, the lectern, or the edge of the sanctuary. A deacon, cantor, or other suitable minister may sing the intentions or intercessions.

Clearly Confusing

The "instruction" is riddled with options, making it vague and confusing. It was instructions such as these that set the stage for the disorientation and chaos that have so marked the "Church at prayer" in the past forty-five years.

Should the General Intercessions be allowed to fall into abeyance? Can they be salvaged? What are the chances of recovering a form of the Prayer of the Faithful that is dignified, hieratic, and in harmony with what Mr. Edmund Bishop called "the genius of the Roman Rite"?

General Intercessions for the Feast of Stephen

That like Saint Stephen, the praying Church, filled with the Holy Spirit,
may gaze into heaven
and see there the glory of God
and Jesus standing at the right hand of he Father,
to the Lord we pray, Christ hear us. R. Christ, graciously hear us.

That world leaders of good will
may turn from every project of war
to collaborate sincerely and effectively in the pursuit of peace,
to the Lord we pray, Christ hear us. R. Christ, graciously hear us.

That those who suffer for the sake of Christ and the Gospel
may be consoled by the Holy Spirit;
and that the sick and the dying
may be moved by the Holy Spirit
to pray, like Stephen, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,"
to the Lord we pray, Christ hear us. R. Christ, graciously hear us.

That the deacons of the Church,
and men preparing for the Holy Diaconate,
may find in Saint Stephen a model of the holiness to which they are called,
and a powerful intercessor,
to the Lord we pray, Christ hear us. R. Christ, graciously hear us.

That, like Saint Stephen the Protomartyr,
we may find in the psalms the very prayer of Christ to the Father,
and the words given by the Holy Spirit for our own prayer to Christ
to the Lord we pray, Christ hear us. R. Christ, graciously hear us.


Almighty and ever-living God,
by whose gracious will
the Holy Spirit indwells and overshadows
the Body of your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
mercifully grant that we may experience
in our prayer and in our lives
that glorious unity that is the fruit
not of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man
but of the will of your Christ
and of the power of your Holy Spirit.
Through the same Christ our Lord.

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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