Certain it is that the critical issues, the thorny problems that wait upon man’s solution, have remained the same for almost twenty centuries. And why? Because the whole of history and of life hinges on the person of Jesus Christ. Either men anchor themselves on Him and His Church, and thus enjoy the blessings of light and joy, right order and peace; or they live their lives apart from Him; many positively oppose Him, and deliberately exclude themselves from the Church. The result can only be confusion in their lives, bitterness in their relations with one another, and the savage threat of war.
From the Address of Pope St John XXIII opening the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, the Office of Readings for this feast.
ST PATRICK Is the copatron of our Archdiocese and so today’s Lenten commemoration is observed as a Solemnity here in San Francisco (as in NYC). We usually hear of driving the snakes out of Ireland (there’s never been any snakes there…) but while miracles are cool, the proof of anyone’s sanctity is the life of the Spirit within them. We are fascinated by miracles: one might say distracted. The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are boring. So we think about Patrick driving out the snakes. Sure, courage, peace, and wisdom, right… but snakes, bro! He also raised 33 people from the dead!
It’s the Spirit that makes this possible. The Catechism at ¶1831 says “The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are (1)wisdom, (2)understanding, (3)counsel, (4)fortitude, (5)knowledge, (6)piety, and (7)fear of the Lord. They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them.” The gifts of the Spirit come from the listing in Isaiah 11:1-2. The Latin text calls Number 4, fortitudo or fortitude and is sometimes rendered in listings as “courage”. Courage is usually acting in the face of fear. St Hilary of Poitiers says, “Fear in this ordinary sense is the trepidation our weak humanity feels when it is afraid of suffering something it does not want to happen. We are afraid, or are made afraid, because of a guilty conscience, the rights of someone more powerful, an attack from one who is stronger, sickness, encountering a wild beast, suffering evil in any form. This kind of fear is not taught: it happens because we are weak. We do not have to learn what we should fear: objects of fear bring their own terror with them.” (This is quoted from the Office of Readings for Thursday in the Second Week of Lent.) This makes no sense though for Patrick: what had he to be afraid of?
The Greek in the Septuagint doesn’t go there – to courage and fear. The Greek word for courage is τολμάω toma-o, meaning “to have courage, to be bold”. That’s not the word that gets used for fortitude though. The word that gets used is ἰσχύος iskhuos, a form of ἰσχύς iskhus. It means mighty or powerful. It is actually one of the titles of God in a prayer called the Trisagon, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.” In the trinitarian reading of that prayer the second phrase is a Title of God the Son: “Holy Mighty”. So we’re not asking for “courage” so much as power or, better yet, “mightiness”.
What is that?
The Hebrew word in Isaiah 11:1 is גְּבוּרָה gevurah. It’s the same word used in the ending to the Lord’s Prayer in Hebrew. “Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.” All through the Old Testamentgevurah is rendered as might, power, or strength. Even force. Not courage. God has a mighty hand and mighty acts. The sun has might. Might point in mentioning all this is that the gift of the spirit is not the idea of courage and no-fear. It’s mightiness, power. Even valor. (Remember: there’s another word for courage.)
The story is told of St Patrick kindling the Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane. The King had forbidden all fires to be light on the Spring Equinox until he lit his own on the hill of Tara. Patrick went ahead with his own fire – you know the blessing of the New Fire in the Easter Vigil! A druid remarked that if Patrick’s fire was not extinguished it would burn forever.
There are a couple of things wrong with the story, first off: the ancient Celts didn’t celebrate the equinoxes. In fact, very few cultures did: there were other days easier to note. That aside, the Easter Fire would not have been lit on the night before the Equinox (it would not have been Easter at that point). Easter is the First Sunday after the first full moon after the Equinox. The earliest possible date for Easter is 22 March. That’s the only date the Paschal and Equinox fires could have been on the same night. The only date in that time that Easter fell on 22 March was in 482 AD. That’s 20 years after Patrick died. (Sometimes the story mentions fires of Beltain or Bealtain, but that’s on 1 May – not at all around the date of Easter.)
SO… pagan festival fires aside what probably happened was the King forbade Patrick from celebrating Easter in public at all.
He lit the fire anyway (began the Vigil Mass, that is).
If Patrick was fearful (I doubt it) then it was a courageous act, but with or without fear the point is: it was mighty. It was powerful. It was a mighty act of power to light the Paschal Fires.
Christians are called to these acts of power, to these acts of might.
Mindful again that this word, might, is a title of God and a gift of the Holy Spirit, an actual definition of “might” here is not important. What constitutes a mighty act is not something that required God. It’s not a miracle, or something mytical or magical.
A Mighty Act is participating in what God is doing here and now. It’s meditating God’s presence in the present as a witness (martyr) to the salvation of those around you.
Patrick’s action was mighty, was powerful, was filled with evangelistic zeal for the Irish Peoples, exactly because he was mediating the action of God in place in that time. Kindling the Fire was a hieratic action, being God in that place just as Moses was to Pharaoh, so Patrick was to Laoghaire (Leery). So you can be to those around you in the gift of Power. Your powerful actions can mediate God’s presence – which is love – to those around you, can draw others into God’s actions of salvation in their lives.
Be like Patrick and, robed in the Power of the Holy Spirit, light the first fires to draw others to God.
Omnia cooperantur in bonum. All things work for the good. This is one place where I feel woefully weak in my faith. For I need to have all my ducks in a row all the time. Yes, it’s true: I could up and move across the country tomorrow. But if I do it’s because I have all my ducks in a row and, “I got this.” I know I usually make it look like “God, you gotta miracle? Cuz I need one…” but the reality is if I trusted God more, I might have actually stayed put and acted rather than running away. In hindsight no one would be happy: but I might have stayed in Western North Carolina, when the Parish and the Monastery melted away… and become Roman Catholic just there. B16 had come on board, everything was looking rosy, Asheville was even doing parades with the Blessed Sacrament! But I’ll take my ducks and run away… you know though: God even uses that. I had a birthday phone call last week from a friend whose life was always in chaos because she just had one thing she could NOT get at work. After years she got it… and that gave her more responsibility, and that put her life in even more chaos. Thing is she was my housemate. We might have hung on a bit longer if she saw this work opportunity coming. But lo, when it got there, it was even worse than before. My departure – my fear of commitment – turned out to be something God used for my good: in this case, my sanity. I’ve nearly never come clean about all the times I’ve run away. But mostly: it was because I couldn’t trust God to bring good out of where I was or else, I was too chicken to take the actions I knew I needed to take so running away was the only thing left. For example, when I became Orthodox I was living with this guy. I was trying to find a way to be Orthodox and hold on to this guy. I couldn’t… so I left. Moved to Asheville, because I couldn’t make the break up either. So, when I wrote “I was in hell” I was living with this Dude. And no small art of my hell was made up of not being willing to act and to trust God when I acted. So I ran away. Which God used: bringing dozens of people into my life, bringing friends I’d never have had otherwise, reconnecting me with my parents (because of proximity), reconnecting me with some sense of adult responsibility: I came away from there with my first driver’s license and my first car. And I got there with my first sense of things I can’t do any more and be Orthodox or Catholic. It took a while to sink in, but the lesson was learned. I’m not sure why this lesson shows up on the Nativity of the BVM, but maybe because her parents were barren for so long that they are a reminder: even when life isn’t going “right” it is still going God’s way. My formation director in the Dominican Tertiaries encouraged me by saying that God used all the things I’d been through to bring me to holiness. I’ll chew on that. God uses all things for our Good – which means for our acquisition of virtue, our salvation, our union with him. As St Paul says, later in this chapter.
Certus sum enim quia neque mors, neque vita, neque angeli, neque principatus, neque virtutes, neque instantia, neque futura, neque fortitudo, neque altitudo, neque profundum, neque creatura alia poterit nos separare a caritate Dei, quae est in Christo Jesu Domino nostro.
For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Not one thing that can happen to us can part us from God. But this is where my faith is weakest, and I have more than trouble here: trusting that things are going not “as God planned” but rather “As God is saving me”.
Cavete autem ab hominibus. Tradent enim vos in conciliis, et in synagogis suis flagellabunt vos: et ad præsides, et ad reges ducemini propter me in testimonium illis, et gentibus. Beware of men. For they will deliver you up in councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues. And you shall be brought before governors, and before kings for my sake, for a testimony to them and to the Gentiles.
This week, to celebrate Christmas, we have the feasts of a whole bunch of martyrs:
26 Dec – St Stephen, who was killed by nonbelievers for his faith.
27 Dec – St John, who wasn’t killed but was imprisoned and harassed by nonbelievers for his faith all his adult life.
28 Dec – The Holy Innocents who were slain by nonbelievers for being born too close to Jesus.
29 Dec – St Thomas Becket who was slain by supposed believers for his defense of the Church.
There’s a progression here. The Church’s calendar has always been about teaching – which is why the feasts from 26-28 do not change. (The feast on the 29th came later and is of a lower rank but it expands the pattern.)
St Stephen, an adult, was slain for confessing his faith in public.
St John, an adult, confessed his faith, but was only a social outcast – they hoped he’d cave in.
The Holy Innocents had no faith, but the Church counts them as her first harvest of Martyrs because they were slain for Jesus.
St Thomas was slain by other folks claiming to be Christian because he was willing to stand up to the political powers which they supported.
Here’s the progression:
The faith annoys people in the world and, for a few hundred years, Christians got killed. It was not a solid killing spree though: sometimes Christians were just the freaky folks that normal people had to put up with. Julian the Apostate cemented the pattern that has held forever: Stalin was still doing it last century and Castro was doing it even in this Century. You kill some, oppress the rest – people give up after awhile. Much easier to buy bread when you don’t have to worry about the religion of the baker. In some places the killing gets so great that even the faithless get caught up in the mess. The various wars in various parts of the world that are fought over “religion” end up killing people in the name of religion that might otherwise be faith-neutral. ISIS has slain people who were not Christian who have been named Martyrs by the Copts. Today if you are public about your faith you have to say “yes, but not that kind of Christian” so often. People who pray in public can be mistaken for Muslims by some or for Trumpists by others. How ironic, that? There may be no killing, but there is social ostracization. People of faith can be forced to bake cakes for the Queen of Heaven (see Jeremiah 7:18), but professional musicians and sports teams can break contracts in states with laws they don’t like – and be cheered on.
Yet, I fear the Becket phase is coming.
In the Becket Phase, people who claim to be Christians – but are really only politicians – will kill off the faithful. People who are one sort of Christian will easily hate others and will turn them in. Here, many might expect the liberal all inclusive sort to say “Yes, but not that kind of Christian…” as they point with baseball bats of political correctness at people in Pro-life Marches or those opposed to making up new rules for marriage, sex, or human identity. I don’t find that impossible, but I think in this country, at this time, we’re more likely to see people who support racism in the name of their politicised faith turn against people who support justice in the name of Catholicism, if the former continues to evolve into the law of the land, the latter (including many bishops) will become targets.
In the Stephen Phase, we would have to journey to the Middle East as evangelists to be killed – or, we could sit tight in our protected churches and wait for someone to come find us. Statistically, though, the second case will fit better into the Becket phase described above. We’re more likely to be shot by a conservative in this country than by a Muslim.
So there we are. I don’t have much happiness to share in these feasts of martyrs other than we’re all supposed to be martyrs and it helps if there are those out there who want to help us along the path.
Ave gratia plena: Dominus tecum. Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.
Unto whomst (as all the cool kiddies say on Twitter) else has the Lord ever said “Full of Grace”?
Unto which of the Angels or the Prophets, the Patriarchs, the Judges, unto which King or Queen, unto which Priest or Levite, has this ever been said? Unto which of the women of Jerusalem did Solomon ever say this? Unto which of the maidens dancing is this said in the Psalms?
No one gets this praise. No one at all, but she who is the Mother of God, conceived this day without sin.
But why? The teaching is that by a singular act of the Divine Mercy, Mary was given this grace before birth: not to know the stain of original sin. The “splendor of an entirely unique holiness” by which Mary is “enriched from the first instant of her conception” comes wholly from Christ: she is “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son”. (Catechism, 492.)
And where else do we hear that sort of language? Around baptism! Around our baptism.
What God has promised you and I in our baptism, he gave to Mary by mercy at her conception. What is so horrifying about this: to think that God would honor with all the graces she who was to be the mother of Grace himself? She who was to be the gateway of light would be filled with light for all her life. She who was to be the new Eve would have the grace given to the first Eve before her fall. She who was to be the star of morning before the Dawn of Justice would, in herself, show the reflected light of the advancing sun.
This makes perfect, clear, and charitable sense.
It’s not sensible to deny any of this – although Modernists get away with it by denying original sin outright. This is also not sensible: anyone who has met an Orthodox or Catholic Politician knows original sin is real. If you have the slightest inkling that Jesus is God, what honor would he not bestow on his mother?
This word gets used one other time (in a different form) in the entire New Testament. It’s in our second reading today, Ephesians 1:6, and it’s not talking about Mary, but about all of us who are Baptised. And this is why it makes sense to honor Mary today as Full of Grace: the Grace of Baptism bestowed before birth by God’s mercy. It’s scriptural: what God says of us after Baptism, he says of Mary before there ever was a baptism!
In Ephesians, we are celebrated as the ones chosen by God – in the same way as Mary. We are the one made in Christ to be blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavens. We are given this favor freely: we are made full of grace. To deny this to Mary is to deny this to everyone. (Again the Modernists and Liberals would have no problem with that.)
Today we celebrate in foreshadow what we will hail in reality on Christmas. God become Man to bring Man to God in fullest union. God entering our world to change the very fabric of it to make it a pathway of life instead of death. And even here, at conception, the thing that kills us is destroyed.
This is the glory of the Church: that Mary, our mother, signifies in her soul and body the mystery of our very lives: redeemed, elevated, filled with Grace, and made to birth the Word of God for the joy of all the world. This is the secret doctrine of our faith, that Mary, our mother, knows in her person the fullness of the joy that each of us strives to inculcate by the Spirit. This is the light that burns brightest on our altars: that Mary, our mother in birthing God to the world has become the Tabernacle of life himself. Mary is the Tabernacle, the Temple. Mary replaces all that with her virginal womb.
This day we affirm the highest honor God bestows on all of us by celebrating the most singular person to receive that honor in the most singular way. What we received in Baptism, by the promise, Mary received at conception by Grace. Let us by her prayers become worthy of this gift that we, too, may intercede with her before the Throne of God for those in our lives.