A piece by Marilynne Robinson recently appeared in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. A Calvinist, her books are as gentle as they are somber; (I haven’t read Home, but Gilead and Housekeeping are worth the time it would take to read them). She certainly isn’t the only prominent writer to note the literary significance of the Bible (as if it needed noting) (cf. Robert Alter, Northrop Frye, and George Steiner). But it is agreeable to see it in print. (And it’s something of an enticing advance for next Monday’s lecture on Biblical Poetics). Anyway, here’s a snippet of the full article:
In our strange cultural moment it is necessary to make a distinction between religious propaganda and religious thought, the second of these being an attempt to do some sort of justice to the rich difficulties present in the tradition. The great problem for Christianity is always the humility of the figure in whom God is said to have been incarnate, and the insistence of the tradition that God is present in the persons of the despised and rejected.
It’s never been clear to me how much yield there is wrought from the investment of time to edit and post our homilies–which is why there haven’t been any for a couple of months. As a Christmas present to you, here are the Pastor’s homilies from Christmas, both for the Vigil and the Day. Joyous Noel!
Our Holy Father’s worldwide Christmas message:
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Rome and throughout the world! Christ is born for us! Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to the men and women whom he loves. May all people hear an echo of the message of Bethlehem which the Catholic Church repeats in every continent, beyond the confines of every nation, language and culture. The Son of the Virgin Mary is born for everyone; he is the Saviour of all.
This is how Christ is invoked in an ancient liturgical antiphon: “O Emmanuel, our king and lawgiver, hope and salvation of the peoples: come to save us, O Lord our God”. Veni ad salvandum nos! Come to save us! This is the cry raised by men and women in every age, who sense that by themselves they cannot prevail over difficulties and dangers. They need to put their hands in a greater and stronger hand, a hand which reaches out to them from on high. Dear brothers and sisters, this hand is Christ, born in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary. He is the hand that God extends to humanity, to draw us out of the mire of sin and to set us firmly on rock, the secure rock of his Truth and his Love (cf. Ps 40:2).
This is the meaning of the Child’s name, the name which, by God’s will, Mary and Joseph gave him: he is named Jesus, which means “Saviour” (cf. Mt 1:21; Lk 1:31). He was sent by God the Father to save us above all from the evil deeply rooted in man and in history: the evil of separation from God, the prideful presumption of being self-sufficient, of trying to compete with God and to take his place, to decide what is good and evil, to be the master of life and death (cf. Gen 3:1-7). This is the great evil, the great sin, from which we human beings cannot save ourselves unless we rely on God’s help, unless we cry out to him: “Veni ad salvandum nos! – Come to save us!”
The very fact that we cry to heaven in this way already sets us aright; it makes us true to ourselves: we are in fact those who cried out to God and were saved (cf. Esth [LXX] 10:3ff.). God is the Saviour; we are those who are in peril. He is the physician; we are the infirm. To realize this is the first step towards salvation, towards emerging from the maze in which we have been locked by our pride. To lift our eyes to heaven, to stretch out our hands and call for help is our means of escape, provided that there is Someone who hears us and can come to our assistance.
Jesus Christ is the proof that God has heard our cry. And not only this! God’s love for us is so strong that he cannot remain aloof; he comes out of himself to enter into our midst and to share fully in our human condition (cf. Ex 3:7-12). The answer to our cry which God gave in Jesus infinitely transcends our expectations, achieving a solidarity which cannot be human alone, but divine. Only the God who is love, and the love which is God, could choose to save us in this way, which is certainly the lengthiest way, yet the way which respects the truth about him and about us: the way of reconciliation, dialogue and cooperation.
Dear brothers and sisters in Rome and throughout the world, on this Christmas 2011, let us then turn to the Child of Bethlehem, to the Son of the Virgin Mary, and say: “Come to save us!” Let us repeat these words in spiritual union with the many people who experience particularly difficult situations; let us speak out for those who have no voice.
Together let us ask God’s help for the peoples of the Horn of Africa, who suffer from hunger and food shortages, aggravated at times by a persistent state of insecurity. May the international community not fail to offer assistance to the many displaced persons coming from that region and whose dignity has been sorely tried.
May the Lord grant comfort to the peoples of South-East Asia, particularly Thailand and the Philippines, who are still enduring grave hardships as a result of the recent floods.
May the Lord come to the aid of our world torn by so many conflicts which even today stain the earth with blood. May the Prince of Peace grant peace and stability to that Land where he chose to come into the world, and encourage the resumption of dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. May he bring an end to the violence in Syria, where so much blood has already been shed. May he foster full reconciliation and stability in Iraq and Afghanistan. May he grant renewed vigour to all elements of society in the countries of North Africa and the Middle East as they strive to advance the common good.
May the birth of the Saviour support the prospects of dialogue and cooperation in Myanmar, in the pursuit of shared solutions. May the Nativity of the Redeemer ensure political stability to the countries of the Great Lakes Region of Africa, and assist the people of South Sudan in their commitment to safeguarding the rights of all citizens.
Dear Brothers and Sisters, let us turn our gaze anew to the grotto of Bethlehem. The Child whom we contemplate is our salvation! He has brought to the world a universal message of reconciliation and peace. Let us open our hearts to him; let us receive him into our lives. Once more let us say to him, with joy and confidence: “Veni ad salvandum nos!”
Jon D. Levenson teaches at Harvard Divinity School, and is the author of the very widely appreciated book by scholars and laity, by Jews and Christians, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible. He wrote a piece for the WSJ on the significance of the feast and its Christian influence.
The eight-day festival of Hanukkah, which Jews world-wide will [began] celebrating Tuesday night [20 December], is one of the better known of the Jewish holidays but also one of the less important. [Keep Reading...]
From our brothers at eh Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC.
It’s a bit odd that, having descended the mountain of Transfiguration with our Lord, the disciples ask about Elijah and not Moses (today’s Gospel). After all, it was Moses to whom the Law was given, Moses who led the people out of captivity, and Moses who built the Tabernacle after the heavenly pattern. Indeed, the infidelity that the prophets excoriate is an infidelity in terms of Moses’ covenantal patrimony.
Two differences between the way these men of God manifest divine power can be considered, and which point to the prominence of Elijah for our Gospel.
Moses is able to divide the sea, to conquer the Amalekites, and to draw water from a rock. But he does this largely by way of mere gestures–stretching forth of the hands and striking with the staff. No words accompany these actions. To be sure, Moses received unique commands and inspirations from God to do such and such, but his instrumentality remains–as it were–dumb. Hence, the people witness and experience this power as if from the outside, which is the second point. Moses brings down the tablets of law that God Himself inscribed: but the people do not ascend the mountain, and Moses merely gives what he has received.
Differently, our first lesson points out, Elijah’s amazing deeds are connected with his “words,” which are as “a flaming furnace.” It is by “the Lord’s word that he shut the heavens and three times brought down fire.” It is his words that communicate his “wondrous deeds.” Indeed, the parity between God’s word and the prophet’s words is such that Sirach asks–with reference to Elijah! (i.e., not God as such)–”whose glory is equal to yours?!”
Elijah’s glory is greater than that of Moses. He does equally great deeds, for example splitting the Jordan river (2 Kings 2.8) as Moses did the Red Sea. But moreover, like Christ, Elijah raises the dead (1 Kings 17.23).
Because these works, as emphasized by Sirach, are effected by Elijah’s words, the people are privy to the will and presence of God in a way that they did not have with Moses. As a result, all who have “seen” Elijah are blessed.
Consequently, the prophetic tradition to which the wisdom author, Sirach, witnesses, recognizes that the Messianic age is one where words communicate power. Indeed, the Messiah is the very Word made flesh. The ultimate gesture of God is that His selfsame Word is made manifest in the Nativity of His Son! God wants us to hear the words of His works!
Coming down from the mount of Transfiguration, then, the disciples ask a somewhat academic question about why “scribes” say that Elijah has to come first. Jesus simply responds by saying that Elijah has come! Our Lord emphasizes the fact that the words of the Bible (specifically, Malachi 4.1-5) and the words of God’s preachers (specifically, John the Baptist) manifest what needs be seen. People do not “recognize” what they ought because they have not heeded aright the words that have been preached to them.
Today, St. John the Baptist encourages us to recognize the Messiah by heeding the words of his tradition. A great attention to the Word of God as constitutive of any kind of spirituality is necessary…
as it is to the words of the liturgy, which are taken from the Bible and traditional preaching of the Church’s Saints. Our new translation provides precisely this opportunity to make a straight pathway in our hearts for the Lord.
The Church entrusts her ordained ministers with the prophetic task to manifest uniquely the works of God through the celebration of the sacraments. When the people respond “And with your Spirit,” they are making a unique response to God’s ordained ministers because to these latter have been imparted a special share in the Spirit of the Almighty. That special share is what empowers them in a unique and Elijah-like way to say “The Lord be with you”… not only so that they might mean it themselves, but so that they might effect it for others!
From Pio Nono’s Apostolic Constitution, Ineffabilis Deus, 8 December 1854
… The Fathers and writers of the Church, well versed in the heavenly Scriptures, had nothing more at heart than to vie with one another in preaching and teaching in many wonderful ways the Virgin’s supreme sanctity, dignity, and immunity from all stain of sin, and her renowned victory over the most foul enemy of the human race. This they did in the books they wrote to explain the Scriptures, to vindicate the dogmas, and to instruct the faithful. These ecclesiastical writers in quoting the words by which at the beginning of the world God announced his merciful remedies prepared for the regeneration of mankind—words by which he crushed the audacity of the deceitful serpent and wondrously raised up the hope of our race, saying, “I will put enmities between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed”—taught that by this divine prophecy the merciful Redeemer of mankind, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, was clearly foretold: That his most Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary, was prophetically indicated; and, at the same time, the very enmity of both against the evil one was significantly expressed. Hence, just as Christ, the Mediator between God and man, assumed human nature, blotted the handwriting of the decree that stood against us, and fastened it triumphantly to the cross, so the most holy Virgin, united with him by a most intimate and indissoluble bond, was, with him and through him, eternally at enmity with the evil serpent, and most completely triumphed over him, and thus crushed his head with her immaculate foot.
This sublime and singular privilege of the Blessed Virgin, together with her most excellent innocence, purity, holiness and freedom from every stain of sin, as well as the unspeakable abundance and greatness of all heavenly graces, virtues and privileges—these the Fathers beheld in that ark of Noah, which was built by divine command and escaped entirely safe and sound from the common shipwreck of the whole world; in the ladder which Jacob saw reaching from the earth to heaven, by whose rungs the angels of God ascended and descended, and on whose top the Lord himself leaned in that bush which Moses saw in the holy place burning on all sides, which was not consumed or injured in any way but grew green and blossomed beautifully; in that impregnable tower before the enemy, from which hung a thousand bucklers and all the armor of the strong; in that garden enclosed on all sides, which cannot be violated or corrupted by any deceitful plots; as in that resplendent city of God, which has its foundations on the holy mountains; in that most august temple of God, which, radiant with divine splendors, is full of the glory of God; and in very many other biblical types of this kind. In such allusions the Fathers taught that the exalted dignity of the Mother of God, her spotless innocence and her sanctity unstained by any fault, had been prophesied in a wonderful manner.
In like manner did they use the words of the prophets to describe this wondrous abundance of divine gifts and the original innocence of the Virgin of whom Jesus was born. They celebrated the august Virgin as the spotless dove, as the holy Jerusalem, as the exalted throne of God, as the ark and house of holiness which Eternal Wisdom built, and as that Queen who, abounding in delights and leaning on her Beloved, came forth from the mouth of the Most High, entirely perfect, beautiful, most dear to God and never stained with the least blemish….
Accordingly, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the honor of the Holy and undivided Trinity, for the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith, and for the furtherance of the Catholic religion, by the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own: “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”
“God With Us”
On the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception
December 7th (Wednesday)
Join us, the Sisters of Life
and the Dominican Friars,
for an evening of prayer and
conference on issues of
L I F E and L O V E.
7:30 pm : exposition – 9:00 pm night prayer
* Extended adoration till 11pm in celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception
Saint Vincent Ferrer Church
869 Lexington Avenue (at East 66th Street)
From Our Holy Father’s Wednesday catechesis 24 October 2007
Saint Ambrose transferred to the Latin environment the meditation on the Scriptures which Origen had begun, introducing in the West the practice of lectio divina. The method of lectio served to guide all of Ambrose’s preaching and writings, which stemmed precisely from prayerful listening to the Word of God. The famous introduction of an Ambrosian catechesis shows clearly how the holy Bishop applied the Old Testament to Christian life: “Every day, when we were reading about the lives of the Patriarchs and the maxims of the Proverbs, we addressed morality”, the Bishop of Milan said to his catechumens and neophytes, “so that formed and instructed by them you may become accustomed to taking the path of the Fathers and to following the route of obedience to the divine precepts” (On the Mysteries 1, 1). In other words, the neophytes and catechumens, in accordance with the Bishop’s decision, after having learned the art of a well-ordered life, could henceforth consider themselves prepared for Christ’s great mysteries. Thus, Ambrose’s preaching – which constitutes the structural nucleus of his immense literary opus – starts with the reading of the Sacred Books (“the Patriarchs” or the historical Books and “Proverbs”, or in other words, the Wisdom Books) in order to live in conformity with divine Revelation.
It is obvious that the preacher’s personal testimony and the level of exemplarity of the Christian community condition the effectiveness of the preaching. In this perspective, a passage from St Augustine’s Confessions is relevant. He had come to Milan as a teacher of rhetoric; he was a sceptic and not Christian. He was seeking the Christian truth but was not capable of truly finding it.
What moved the heart of the young African rhetorician, sceptic and downhearted, and what impelled him to definitive conversion was not above all Ambrose’s splendid homilies (although he deeply appreciated them). It was rather the testimony of the Bishop and his Milanese Church that prayed and sang as one intact body. It was a Church that could resist the tyrannical ploys of the Emperor and his mother, who in early 386 again demanded a church building for the Arians’ celebrations. In the building that was to be requisitioned, Augustine relates, “the devout people watched, ready to die with their Bishop”. This testimony of the Confessions is precious because it points out that something was moving in Augustine, who continues: “We too, although spiritually tepid, shared in the excitement of the whole people” (Confessions 9, 7).
Augustine learned from the life and example of Bishop Ambrose to believe and to preach. We can refer to a famous sermon of the African, which centuries later merited citation in the conciliar Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum: “Therefore, all clerics, particularly priests of Christ and others who, as deacons or catechists, are officially engaged in the ministry of the Word”, Dei Verbum recommends, “should immerse themselves in the Scriptures by constant sacred reading and diligent study. For it must not happen that anyone becomes” – and this is Augustine’s citation – “”an empty preacher of the Word of God to others, not being a hearer of the Word in his own heart’” (n. 25). Augustine had learned precisely from Ambrose how to “hear in his own heart” this perseverance in reading Sacred Scripture with a prayerful approach, so as truly to absorb and assimilate the Word of God in one’s heart.
Dear brothers and sisters, I would like further to propose to you a sort of “patristic icon”, which, interpreted in the light of what we have said, effectively represents “the heart” of Ambrosian doctrine. In the sixth book of the Confessions, Augustine tells of his meeting with Ambrose, an encounter that was indisputably of great importance in the history of the Church. He writes in his text that whenever he went to see the Bishop of Milan, he would regularly find him taken up with catervae [lots] of people full of problems for whose needs he did his utmost. There was always a long queue waiting to talk to Ambrose, seeking in him consolation and hope. When Ambrose was not with them, with the people (and this happened for the space of the briefest of moments), he was either restoring his body with the necessary food or nourishing his spirit with reading. Here Augustine marvels because Ambrose read the Scriptures with his mouth shut, only with his eyes (cf. Confessions, 6, 3). Indeed, in the early Christian centuries reading was conceived of strictly for proclamation, and reading aloud also facilitated the reader’s understanding. That Ambrose could scan the pages with his eyes alone suggested to the admiring Augustine a rare ability for reading and familiarity with the Scriptures. Well, in that “reading under one’s breath”, where the heart is committed to achieving knowledge of the Word of God – this is the “icon” to which we are referring -, one can glimpse the method of Ambrosian catechesis; it is Scripture itself, intimately assimilated, which suggests the content to proclaim that will lead to the conversion of hearts.