When did the Church come into being? Egyptian Christians say the first Church was in their land, when Joseph led Mary and Baby Jesus to exile in what is now Cairo; others point to Pentecost, the day when the tongues of fire came down upon the 120 core members of the Church of Christ’s followers, women and men, including the Apostles and Mary his mother. You could suggest also the calling of the twelve, the sending out of the seventy, among many other key moments in the development of the community that took over Jesus’s mission; but one I had not considered was the taking down of the crucified corpse of the Lord, and the hurried burial in the garden tomb.
The Visual Commentary on Scripture recently published a reflection on this event, titled The Birth of the Church. At this critical moment, the Church had to come together to do what needed doing for his Body; the Church that was now his Body, led by two previously marginal men, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.
Paul Anel addresses this short moment through three works of art, by Rublev, Caravaggio and Michelangelo, and both the reflections and the art can be found by clicking on the link above.
What about the angry psalms – often called the cursing psalms – where the psalmist is ranting and raving and just lets it rip against his enemies? What about them? Should we be embarrassed about them, and try to hide them in a dark corner where no one will notice them?
It’s the feast of Saint Bernard, one of the founding fathers of the Cistercian reform of monastic life. Our reflection is from Thomas Merton, writing in 1952. The celebration of the Eucharist has changed in religious communities as much, if not more than in parishes; there is one Community Mass each day, but there is still room for silence with God.
Our picture is from the trailer for Outside the City, a film by Nick Hamer about the Monks of Mount Saint Bernard’s Abbey in Leicestershire. Read on for Thomas Merton’s reflection on this day.
This week it is my turn to say the brothers’ Communion Mass, Our Lady’s Mass. It is always a Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin, always the same. I like it that way.
In the summer time, this Mass is said at three o’clock in the morning. So I leave the choir after morning meditation to go and say it while the rest of the monks recite Matins and Lauds. I generally finish the brothers’ Communions by the end of the second nocturne, and then go off into the back sacristy and kneel in the dark behind the relic case next to Saint Malachy’s altar, while the sky grows pale outside over the forest and a little cool air seeps in through the slats of the broken shutters.
The birds sing, and the crickets sing, and one priest is silent with God.
Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas, Hollis & Carter, London, 1953, p336.
Our final selection from EBB’s verses on The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus. I disagree with the poet’s suggestion that Jesus never smiled, nor had the heart to play: that’s not a real human child, unless one that has learned not to through cruelty. Perhaps the poet is suggesting that Jesus in his earthly, human life had access to divine knowledge of his death by cruelty. That is to deny his humanity altogether. But we can no longer interview Barrett Browning, and we know that Simeon told Mary that a sword would pierce her heart, and she would have pondered these things in her heart.
It is enough to bear
This image still and fair,
This holier in sleep
Than a saint at prayer,
This aspect of a child
Who never sinned or smiled;
This Presence in an infant's face;
This sadness most like love,
This love than love more deep,
This weakness like omnipotence
It is so strong to move.
Awful is this watching place,
Awful what I see from hence—
A king, without regalia,
A God, without the thunder,
A child, without the heart for play;
Ay, a Creator, rent asunder
From His first glory and cast away
On His own world, for me alone
To hold in hands created, crying—Son!
That tear fell not on Thee,
Beloved, yet thou stirrest in thy slumber!
Thou, stirring not for glad sounds out of number
Which through the vibratory palm-trees run
From summer-wind and bird,
So quickly hast thou heard
A tear fall silently?
Wak'st thou, O loving One?—
Art Thou a King, then?
Come, His universe,
Come, crown me Him a King!
Pluck rays from all such stars as never fling
Their light where fell a curse,
And make a crowning for this kingly brow!—
What is my word? Each empyreal star
Sits in a sphere afar
In shining ambuscade:
The child-brow, crowned by none,
Keeps its unchildlike shade.
Sleep, sleep, my crownless One!
Unchildlike shade! No other babe doth wear
An aspect very sorrowful, as Thou.
No small babe-smiles my watching heart has seen
To float like speech the speechless lips between,
No dovelike cooing in the golden air,
No quick short joys of leaping babyhood.
Alas, our earthly good
In heaven thought evil, seems too good for Thee;
Yet, sleep, my weary One!
And then the drear sharp tongue of prophecy,
With the dread sense of things which shall be done,
Doth smite me inly, like a sword: a sword?
That "smites the Shepherd." Then, I think aloud
The words "despised,"—"rejected,"—every word
Recoiling into darkness as I view
The Darling on my knee.
Bright angels,—move not—lest ye stir the cloud
Betwixt my soul and His futurity!
I must not die, with mother's work to do,
And could not live-and see.
More from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's reflections on Mary.
Perchance this sleep that shutteth out the dreary
Earth-sounds and motions, opens on Thy soul
High dreams on fire with God;
High songs that make the pathways where they roll
More bright than stars do theirs; and visions new
Of Thine eternal Nature's old abode.
Suffer this mother's kiss,
Best thing that earthly is,
To glide the music and the glory through,
Nor narrow in Thy dream the broad upliftings
Of any seraph wing.Thus noiseless, thus.
Sleep, sleep my dreaming One!
The slumber of His lips meseems to run
Through my lips to mine heart, to all its shiftings
Of sensual life, bringing contrariousness
In a great calm. I feel I could lie down
As Moses did, and die,* —and then live most.
I am 'ware of you, heavenly Presences,
That stand with your peculiar light unlost,
Each forehead with a high thought for a crown,
Unsunned i' the sunshine! I am 'ware. Ye throw
No shade against the wall! How motionless
Ye round me with your living statuary,
While through your whiteness, in and outwardly,
Continual thoughts of God appear to go,
Like light's soul in itself. I bear, I bear
To look upon the dropt lids of your eyes,
Though their external shining testifies
To that beatitude within which were
Enough to blast an eagle at his sun:
I fall not on my sad clay face before ye,—I look on His. I know
My spirit which dilateth with the woe
Of His mortality,
May well contain your glory.
Yea, drop your lids more low.
Ye are but fellow-worshippers with me!
Sleep, sleep, my worshipped One!
It’s Mary’s feast today. She matters because she is the mother of Jesus. Let’s read the thoughts of a 19th Century Protestant Englishwoman.
Elizabeth Barrett published this suite of twelve verses in 1838, before she met Robert Browning. I say ‘suite of verses’ for each one can stand as a poem in its own right. In these first two verses Mary speaks tenderly to her Son, trying to establish what their relationship will become. Jesus new-born, sleeps on, exhausted. What will become of them both? We will publish a further selection of the verses over the next three days.
In the stained glass window Jesus is old enough to learn to read and be in Joseph’s workshop, with a rose bush and a palm tree outside.
THE VIRGIN MARY TO THE CHILD JESUS
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
But see the Virgin blest Hath laid her babe to rest. Milton's Hymn on the Nativity.
I. Sleep, sleep, mine Holy One! My flesh, my Lord!—what name? I do not know A name that seemeth not too high or low, Too far from me or heaven: My Jesus, that is best! that word being given By the majestic angel whose command Was softly as a man's beseeching said, When I and all the earth appeared to stand In the great overflow Of light celestial from his wings and head. Sleep, sleep, my saving One!
II. And art Thou come for saving, baby-browed And speechless Being—art Thou come for saving? The palm that grows beside our door is bowed By treadings of the low wind from the south, A restless shadow through the chamber waving: Upon its bough a bird sings in the sun, But Thou, with that close slumber on Thy mouth, Dost seem of wind and sun already weary. Art come for saving, O my weary One?
More from EBB tomorrow; the whole suite can be found on line.
This is not about Anne and Joachim, or whoever were Mary’s parents and Jesus’s grandparents, but about how we put a value on, or better, find value in, grandparents and other older people. We can be sure that Mary was well brought up by good people, and perhaps it was with his understanding grandparents that Jesus stayed when he stopped behind in Jerusalem, aged 12.
This essay by Alan Jacobs explores the values that cannot be measured in pounds, euros or dollars, and makes for refreshing reading whatever your age. Read, enjoy, and ponder!
Fifteen minutes walk from my home in England is a gallery in stained glass of healings at the tomb of Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in his cathedral. Many miracle stories can still be traced there, almost 500 years since the martyr’s shrine was destroyed under Henry VIII.
In 2020 a shrine was reinstated in Saint Thomas’s Catholic church, a hundred yards away, but I have not yet heard of any miracles there. On the other hand, there have been occasions when each of my children came close enough to accidental death for me to be immediately and eternally grateful to God for their preservation. Divine intervention? It felt like it!
This is a review of Adam Blai: The Catholic Guide to Miracles – Separating the Authentic from the Counterfeit. Manchester New Hampshire, SOPHIA INSTITUTE PRESS, 2012.
So what is a miracle? Adam Blai starts with Thomas Aquinas’s definition: ‘a true miracle is something that has a cause that is absolutely hidden from everyone, and that nobody, no matter how knowledgeable, can explain’. (p 2) Creation was the first miracle, the Universe made out of nothing.
Adam Blai takes us through Old Testament Miracles: for example, the healing miracles brought about through the prayer of Elisha and Elijah before him, each restoring to life the son of a woman benefactor. Strangely though, Blai does not acknowledge that many of the Plagues of Egypt have plausibly been ascribed to natural causes.
It is the New Testament that tells of the greatest miracle:
And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. (1 Cor. 15:14)
In the years before the cross and resurrection, Christ performed many miracles, miracles that Blai tells us ‘were proofs beyond His words of who He was’ (p13). Those who see the Church’s preaching as empty will explain them away, and many of the healings at Thomas’s shrine could now be attributed to natural causes. The Church is well aware of this, which is why so few – 60 or 70 – healings at Lourdes in 260 years have been verified as miraculous, a minute proportion of the pilgrims who visit in hope of healing. Blai, like the Church herself, is not naive in the face of healing miracles, but he points out that they are the miracles most open to investigation and so are resorted to in the process of canonisation of saints.
There are, of course, other miracles – he cites the appearances of Mary through the ages, and the healings and other phenomena that people other than the visionaries themselves have witnessed. There are also apparently supernatural events recorded around certain saints: stigmata, levitation, bodily incorruption, and miracles deriving from the Eucharistic elements. Although many such stories were reverently told in my Catholic school, a more mature faith leaves them open to question. Adam Blai accepts God’s interventions but he would not build his faith on these accounts.
In fact Blai is at pains to point out that there are counterfeit miracles. Discerning the difference between supernatural miracles, counterfeits brought about by demons, and mental illness is an important part of his work for the Church (p129); for example, once correctly diagnosed the mentally ill person may be led to accept appropriate help. Yet there are those whose delusions are deep-rooted but also have the charisma to attract others to what becomes a dangerous cult.
Counterfeit, charismatic faith healers are another dangerous group who use people’s fascination – or gullibility – around miracles to line their own pockets, dividing families in the process.
A greater concern for Blai in his work, if not for the average believer who may live a lifetime without coming across such people, is demonic possession and fake miracles. A devil cannot produce a real miracle, but can set up counterfeits, and during exorcism may cry out in protest at being evicted.
I knew someone who was using a ouija board which went silent when, unknown to her, the local priest called on her parents; another young woman was greatly distressed to be told that her boyfriend was soon to die horribly in a road accident. The spirit that may be conjured up in such seances cannot be relied on to be truthful, as I told her; the accident did not happen, but the distress was real and hurtful. The reader will find a full exposé of the ouija board in this volume.
If miracles and the supernatural interest you, this book will give substance to your enquiries. It’s important not to get carried away by miracles that add nothing to the revelation of God’s love for all women and men in Christ Jesus. See them as a new expression of his love, for one person or for many, often for a limited time, like the miracles at Becket’s tomb in Canterbury.
I was glad to read this wise paragraph from Adam Blai’s conclusion (p164).
Real miracles are proofs of God, but we cannot build a faith based only on them. We need a living relationship with God through His Church. The main vehicles of grace are the Word of God and the sacraments, instituted by Christ. The center and goal of Christian faith is a living relationship with Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit.
Was Elizabeth’s pregnancy planned? The idea of an old couple, an old childless couple, planning a pregnancy sounds crazy, but of course it was not their idea, Someone Else had planned it, they had to make His plan their own.
Zachary’s mutism was perhaps a gift, not a punishment; time to reflect, writing the essentials on a clay tablet, time for patience. Did he need nine months of patience after all those years of waiting, of prayer, of resignation? Perhaps he did. This time he had the promise visibly being fulfilled in Elizabeth’s swelling womb; she herself was filled with joyful acceptance and sang when her cousin appeared, complete with her own unlooked-for but now expected little one.
Zachary it was who had the task of telling everyone the name of his son: his loss of speech seems to have led his neighbours to believe he had lost his mind as well. John was certainly a gift for his parents, but also a gift for the people of Israel. But caring for his parents in old age? No: the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel. (Luke 2.80)
God used Angels to take the Good News of John and Jesus to their parents, parents who were together and who loved and supported each other. But sometimes pregnancy can seem like a disaster, not a gift. I’d like to share these words of Susannah Black which are from the transcript of a discussion with Paul Mommsen and Zito Madu at The PloughCast. Ms Black is exploring some of what being pro-life means, and trying to get away from the discussion being focused on the right of the mother versus the right of the unborn.
Tap on the link for the full transcript.
One of the transformations of ways that I’ve gone about being pro-life has been to move from a discussion of the right to life, away from that and away from a rights-based discussion to just like, “What is the good here? Is there a good in the existence of human beings? Is there a good in a human baby however and wherever, whether or not that baby was planned and is that a good that we can do our best to make room for?”
It’s not about whether or not abortion should be legal, it’s about what it means to be a woman who has a body that can carry children, what it means to find yourself pregnant, what it means to find something happening in your life that you did not plan, and what it means to honor that gift even if it’s a really difficult gift to honor.
I guess one of the things that I am committed to as a pro-life person, is doing my best to, as a woman and as a friend and politically as well, making it easier for women to experience, even unexpected pregnancies as something that they can say yes to, and as something that they can experience as gifts.
We walked to Elham on the recommendation of our daughter; we were not disappointed. Firstly, to find the King’s Arms open and ready to sell us good beer which we enjoyed in the square in the full Spring sunshine. And then there was the church, also open, ready to sell us good second-hand books, and ready to give us plenty to reflect upon.
These Easter Lilies were placed before a Madonna and child, but a very Paschal, Easter-minded Madonna and child. Two years ago we looked at a portrait of Mary and baby Jesus in a pieta-like pose, and I urge you to revisit that post now, to complement this one.
That old post considered two paintings from the studio of Rogier van de Weyden, of the mid-XV Century, the Madonna and a Pieta. In each Mary is tenderly holding her son, whose pose as a baby matches that of his lifeless corpse. This is not what our artist in Elham has in view. Jesus may be four years old here, a boy, not a baby, but still dependent on Mary and Joseph for everything.
The boy is very much alive, yet he is standing as if practising for his work on the Cross. He is lightly supported by his mother; at this age he can walk for himself, but that gentle uplift is reassuring. As for Mary, not for the last time she ponders these things in her heart, the heart pierced by the sword of sorrow.
Jesus is about to step forth from her lap. Any parent will know the excitement and trepidation of following a small child, where are they going, what dangers can we perceive that they do not? But letting them lead us is part of growth for the child and also for the parent who is offered the chance to see the world through fresh eyes.
Mary could not prevent the death of Jesus on the Cross but she was there to welcome him on the third day. Isaiah tells us that a little child shall lead them: may we follow him through all life’s trials to our resurrection in his Kingdom.