Christmastide (5): The Feast of Stephen

I have already written about St. Stephen the first or protomartyr, but I’d be remiss if I failed to mention his perhaps most recognizable entry into the cultural canon, which is his feast day’s reference in the English carol “Good King Wenceslas”:

Good_King_Wenceslas_10a

Good_King_Wenceslas_10b
Sheet Music from Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer, Christmas Carols New and Old, First Series (London: Novello, Ewer & Co., 1871), Carol #10.

The only thing to add is that the good Christian monarch borrows from the feast’s name the martyr’s vocation, that is, to serve the Lord through the care of the poor (see Acts 6. 2-3), as well as a share in the martyr’s death as he was murdered attending the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian (26 September).

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Christmastide (5): The Feast of Stephen

The Martyrs: St. Stephen

St. Stephen isn’t the first martyr of the liturgical year — this is often St. Andrew (30 November) — to say nothing of the many martyrs (and Virgin Marytrs) we meet in our Advent journey like Saints Barbara and Lucy, but the Protomartyr’s feast falls wonderfully subsequent the birth of Christ, and so the martyr has a pride of place in the white-robed army [Te martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus in the Te Deum] accompanying Christ at judgment.

Dom. Gueranger:

Thus does the Sacred Liturgy blend the joy of our Lord’s Nativity with the gladness She feels at the triumph of the first of Her Martyrs. Nor will St. Stephen be the only one admitted to share the honors of this glorious Octave. After him we shall have St. John, the Beloved Disciple; the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem; St. Thomas, the Martyr for the Liberties of the Church; and St. Sylvester, the Pontiff of Peace. But the place of honor amidst all who stand around the Crib of the newborn King belongs to St. Stephen, the Protomartyr, who, as the Church sings of him, was “the first to pay back to the Savior the death suffered by the Savior.” It was just that this honor should be shown to Martyrdom; for Martyrdom is the creature’s testimony and return to his Creator for all the favors bestowed on him: it is Man testifying, even by shedding his blood, to the truths which God has revealed to the world. (Vol. 2: 224)

And a bit later:

Stephen, then, deserves to stand near the Crib of his King as leader of those brave champions, the Martyrs, who died for the Divinity of that Babe Whom we adore. Let us join the Church in praying to our Saint, that he help us to come to our Sovereign Lord, now lying on His humble throne in Bethlehem. Let us ask him to initiate us into the mystery of that Divine Infancy, which we are all bound to know and imitate. It was from the simplicity he had learned from that Mystery that he heeded not the number of the enemies he had to fight against, nor trembled at their angry passion, nor winced under their blows, nor hid from them the Truth and their crimes, nor forgot to pardon them and pray for them. What a faithful imitator of the Babe of Bethlehem! (226-27)

Stephen is important, as are all the martyrs, because he, like Christ, entered his death willing (sua sponte). He is honored in Holy Scripture with his ascension to the original diaconate as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit [Acts 6. 5], and his martyrdom [7. 58-60], but not before his speech before the Jerusalem council, one of the longest in the entire New Testament, rich with Old Testament exegesis.

Moreover, the collect of his feast reads: Grant, O Lord, we beseech thee, that we may imitate him whose memory we celebrate so as to learn to love even our enemies [et inimicos diligere]; because we now solemnize his martyrdom [natalitia, lit. birth, i.e., into heaven], who knew how to pray even from his persecutors to our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth, etc.

St. Stephen’s natalitia, or birth into heaven, is dramatically unfolded in Holy Scripture: But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looking up steadfastly to heaven, saw the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And he said: Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God [Acts 7. 55-56]. In fact, Stephen is the only one excepting the Savior himself to refer to Christ as “the Son of Man,” a sweetest token of divine revelation as he witnessed the veil of heaven being pulled aside for his soul’s entrance into divine mansions.

[Moreover — and this is pure speculation — St. Stephen would have been part of the happy few to witness Mary’s Assumption into heaven, albeit with the souls of his soul.]

St. Stephan is already honored in yesterday’s Ad Primam (Prime) martyrology: At Jerusalem, holy Stephen, the first Martyr. He was stoned by the Jews not long after the Ascension of the Lord. But more important than this is that St. Stephan’s name is sung in the Roman canon, right after the Baptist’s (read more here).

Lastly, his attend hymn, “Deus Tuorum Martyrum,” is sung both during this Christmas octave for the Protomartyr as well as during the paschal season (link):

Deus tuorum militum
Sors, et corona, praemium
Laudes canentes Martyris
Absolve nexu crinimis.

O God! thou inheritance, Crown, and reward of thy Soldiers!
absolve from the bonds of our sins us who sing the praises of thy Martyr.

The Martyrs: St. Stephen

The Liturgical Life (1): ab initio

Prayer is man’s richest boon. It is his light, his nourishment, and his very life, for it brings him into communication with God, who is life [Jn viii.12], nourishment [ibid vi. 35], and life [ibid 14. 6]. But of ourselves we know not what we should pray for as we ought [Rom. viii. 26]; we must needs, therefore, address ourselves to Jesus Christ, and say to Him, as the apostles did: ‘Lord, teach us how to pray’ [Lk xi. 1]. He alone can make the dumb speak, and give eloquence to the mouths of children; and this prodigy He effects by sending His Spirit of grace and of prayers [Zach. xii. 10], who delights in helping our infirmity, asking for us with unspeakable groanings. (1)

So begins Dom. Prosper Guéranger’s General Preface (1-19) to his L’Année Liturgique — The Liturgical Year — a 14-volume treasure trove which I have been meditating upon for the better part of three years. part of my devotions includes reading the days prayers and reflections before and sometimes only after the Mass and various Offices of the day. This practice is rather easy and sensical when it comes to the Saints, where Guéranger’s work serves as a helpful but more meditative Butler’s Lives of the Saints [link], which are themselves deeply edifying and commendable for anyone who wishes to grow in the imitatio santorum.

But I keep coming back every Advent to Guéranger’s commentaries, which I still find rich, deep, and full of insight. By why talk about this now and here? Well, I was recently following a blog like to another WordPress blogger, a Protestant, who among other things, eschews the keeping for Christian feast days, most notably, the Feast of the Lord’s Nativity, which we commonly call Christmas. Now, I do respect his sola scriptura stance, for ‘at least it’s an ethos.’ But why are the liturgical year and the liturgical life so necessary for one’s soul? The positive affirmations of such a question are more important.

Consider Guéranger’s opening remarks to the work entire. The issue is prayer. When we are born into Holy Mother Church through the sacrament of Baptism, we like infants are infansunable to speak — and so we cry and wail without the what [quid] to say and the how [quo modo] to say it. As a father of three and a 7-month old now, I know what it’s like to have a child who doesn’t know what she wants nor does she have the capacity to ask. So too is it the newly baptized Christian who has asked, or on her behalf, of Christ’s Church for “faith.”

In asking for faith [fides, how to be fidelis or loyal to Christ], the baptized is further initiated into the catechism of one’s way of “living, moving, and being” [cf. Acts xvii. 28], which consists of learning, among other things, the orationes [from oro, to speak, pray, or plead] of the Church: the Paternoster or Our Father, the Ave or Hail Mary, and Credo or Apostles’ Creed [1]. Then there are, of course, the prayers of the Mass and the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours that give the new Christian the words to say. This is why the priest exhorts those assisting or hearing Mass, oremus – let us pray.

The words, given to the Church by the Word Incarnate or inspired by the Holy Spirit and carried on by his apostles and their successors, are the words of eternal life [Jn 6. 69]

And so we should learn these words in order to hear the Lord’s voice, to respond to His voice, and, when ready, to bring out the good stored in our hearts, for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh [Lk 6. 45] and to render account to God himself [Rom. 14. 12].

In the end, I hope to go slowly through Guéranger’s work and comment on his commentary. This will be a lovely labor and one I hope I can accomplish with great gladness.

[1] For an in-depth display of the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and catechesis, see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1214-1321 (pp. 312-333 or here and following). For an interesting study of early Christian catechesis, see F. van der Meer’s Augustine the Bishop, ch. 12: “Becoming a Christian,” 347-87 [Amazon link].

The Liturgical Life (1): ab initio

Christmastide (4): The Queen’s Christmas Message 2017

I have long been a fan of Her Majesty the Queen. I suppose enough of the drama of bad American politics will make anyone look with some favor on a monarchy. Not withstanding its flaws, the Crown and the sovereign who wears its hold a special place in the hearts and minds of both those within and without the Commonwealth.

One part of Her Majesty’s traditions is an annual Christmas address to the Realm and the world, not unlike the Holy Father’s Urbi et Orbi [To the City and the World] address, in which she looks back on the year past and forward to the one to come, and ever mindful of her duties as the sovereign, she highlights the secular and spiritual concerns of our common humanity.

In this year’s address, she notes the saddest realities that terrorism now plays in the destabilization of our daily lives. She reviews the attacks on London and Manchester, to name only two, as well as the devastation in the Caribbean, and she describes and praising the men and women who attend to the safety, protection, rescue, and relief in these seemingly unstable times.

To the Queen’s own closing words:

Volunteers and charities, as well as many churches, arrange meals for the homeless and those who would otherwise be alone on Christmas Day.

We remember the birth of Jesus Christ whose only sanctuary was a stable in Bethlehem.

He knew rejection, hardship and persecution; and yet it is Jesus Christ’s generous love and example which has inspired me through good times and bad.

Whatever your own experiences this year; wherever and however you are watching, I wish you a peaceful and very happy Christmas.

[Read the entire transcript here; watch the broadcast here]

Christmastide (4): The Queen’s Christmas Message 2017

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Other feasts than these [Easter, Pentecost] have an altogether different significance. Christmas is of comparatively recent origin. It does not, strictly speaking, commemorate a mystery, but a particularly unique natale, a birthday, and one falling on a specially suggestive day. Augustine knows that it replaces the birthday of Sol Invictus, although the pagan festival was only celebrated at a few places and was originally a particularity of the Roman city calendar. This fact, however, seems to have been widely known in Africa, since Augustine says in a Christmas sermon, “Let us celebrate this day as a feast not for the sake of this sun, which is beheld by unbelievers as much as by ourselves, but for the sake of him who created the sun.” [Sermo 190] He also believes, however, that there is a reliable tradition which gives December 25 as the actual date of the birth of our Lord. According to this same tradition the birth of John the Baptist took place six months before the eighth day before the calends of January, that is, on the eighth day before the calends of July—which means, unfortunately, that it fell on the 24th, and not on the 25th, of June.

Broadly speaking, however, the feast of St. John coincides with the summer solstice and Christmas with the winter solstice. This fact does not particularly disturb the good bishop. He merely points out that as Christmas the days begin to grow longer and on the feast of St. John to grow shorter, a symbol to show that the one had of necessity to become greater, while the other had to grow less.

F. van der Meer, Augustine the Bishop (292-293)

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In the fullness of time, chosen in the unfathomable depths of God’s wisdom, the Son of God took for himself our common humanity in order to reconcile it with its creator. He came to overthrow the devil, the origin of our death, in that very nature by which he had overthrown mankind.

And so at the birth of our Lord the angels in joy: Gloria in excelsis Deo and they proclaim In terra pax hominibus as they are the heavenly Jerusalem being built from all the nations of the world. When the angels on high are so exultant at this marvelous work of God’s goodness, what joy should it not bring to the lowly hearts of men?

Pope St. Leo the Great, Sermon for the feast of the Lord’s Nativity [Sermo 1 in Nativitate Domini]

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So that man might eat the Bread of angels the Creator of the angels became man. The angels praise Him by living; we, by believing; they by enjoying, we by seeking; they by obtaining, we by striving to obtain; they by entering, we by knocking.

What human being could know all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden in Christ and concealed under the poverty of His humanity? For, “being rich, he became poor for our sake that by his poverty we might become rich.” When He assumed our mortality and overcame death, He manifested Himself in poverty, but He promised riches though they might be deferred; He did not lose them as if they were taken from Him. How great is the multitude of His sweetness which He hides from those who fear Him but which He reveals to those that hope in Him! For we understand only in part until that which is perfect comes to us. To make us worthy of this perfect gift, He, equal to the Father in the form of God, became like to us in the form of a servant, and refashions us into the likeness of God. The only Son of God, having become the Son of Man, makes many sons of men the sons of God; and on these men, reared as servants, with the visible form of servants, He bestows the freedom of beholding the form of God. For we are the children of God, and it has not yet appeared what we shall be. We know that, when he appears, we shall be like to him, for we shall see him just as he is. What, then, are those treasures of wisdom and knowledge? What are those divine riches unless they be that which satisfies our longing? And what is that multitude of sweetness unless it be what fills us? “Show us the Father and it is enough for us.” Furthermore, in one of the psalms, one of our race, either in our name or for our sake, said to Him: I shall be satisfied when thy glory shall appear. But He and the Father are one, and the person who sees Him sees the Father also; therefore, the Lord of hosts, he is the King of Glory. Turning to us, He will show us His face and “we shall be saved”; we shall be satisfied, and He will be sufficient for us.

Therefore, let our heart speak thus to Him; “I have sought thy countenance; thy face, O Lord, will I still seek. Turn not away thy face from me.” 

St. Augustine, Sermon for the Feast of the Nativity (Sermo 194)

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