Our study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church will resume in mid-January.
In my internet research I come across some Catholic and Evangelical sites expressing anguish at claims that Christmas originated as a pagan feast. This always surprises me, as I learned in school that the early Christians established the feast on December 25th to counter a pagan celebration rife with wrongdoings. Adolf Adam, in his treatment of the history of the Christmas liturgy, identifies the pagan feast as a tribute to “the Unconquered Sun God.” Adam uses an interesting phrase; in order to “inoculate” Christians from the allurements of this post-winter solstice debauchery, the feast we know as Christmas was established in the fourth century in Rome, on December 25.
I suspect that what upsets some believers about this superimposing of feasts is (1) the easy assumption that elements of the pagan Sun God impacted Christian belief on the nature of Christ and his origins, and/or (2) the fact that the precise day of Jesus’ birth is lost to history. St. Luke is the only New Testament writer to attempt to nail down a time for the birth of Jesus, but in truth all he really does is give us an approximation of the dating of the tax census. Implied in all of this is that the Gospels are not fundamental factual history in every case; in truth the Church has provided to scholars the (hard) historical core that must be adhered to in undertaking scriptural study, and since the twentieth century has not included the Infancy narrative in that corpus—as hard factual history. Scholars have plumbed the Christmas narratives for profound insights into the nature of Jesus. It is just impossible to give a date of his birth.
The Romans were hearty partiers, it seems, because the first day of the New Year was also a time of “superstitious practices and gross orgies” under the banner of the two-faced god Janus (per Adam, 139). January 1 was also the day that Roman Consuls began their new terms of office. Here again, the Church stepped in to “inoculate” the faithful (I love that term) with a feast of its own invention. Curiously, the first New Years’ liturgical observances were penitential in nature, and we have no better source than St. Augustine himself, who preached, “Let them give new year’s gifts, you should give alms…let them rush to the theater: you should rush to church…let them get drunk: you should fast.” (139) This was indeed the custom of many parts of Western Europe as late as the seventh century.
But there is another interesting development to the New Year’s observance in the Christian calendar. It is well established that Christians in the East (the Greek world of the Eastern Roman Empire) were far ahead of the Roman West in their veneration of Mary, and possibly to keep pace, the Roman Church began to celebrate Mary as the Mother of God on January 1. Eastern Christendom had established feasts of the Annunciation and the Assumption of Mary far ahead of the West as well.
That said, local and regional developments regarding the New Year’s observance began to crop up in Spain and in Gaul (France) as early as the sixth century. In these regions January 1 was observed as the “Circumcision of the Lord and Octave Day of Christmas.” There was considerable logic in this development, as Luke 2:20 states in tonight’s/tomorrow’s Gospel that on the eighth day after his birth (one week) Jesus was circumcised—the supreme entry rite into the community of Abraham—and using the calendar of the times that would equate to January 1.
The Spanish/French observance of January 1 as the Circumcision did not take hold in Rome until the thirteenth or fourteenth century, where it would be called “The Circumcision of the Lord and Octave Day of Christmas,” a title which officially stood in place till the Vatican II reform of the missal in 1970. However, I cannot recall this feast ever referred to by its full title; it was always just “the Circumcision” and generations of young students like myself had the innocence (and later, the good sense) not to ask many questions to the good nuns who were very happy to move ahead to the January 6 feast of the Epiphany. My assumption as a minor was always the propriety of having a holy day on the first day of the new year.
Surprisingly, when the missal was reformed in the late 1960’s, there was no thought about the fact that the Octave of Christmas was also the first day of the new year. Officially the January 1 observance returned to the fourth century practice of dedicating the day to the Virgin Mary. The Circumcision title was dropped, and if you check the USCCB page for January 1, you will see the official rendering: The Octave Day of Christmas: Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.
This was not the end of the matter, though. Liturgists—and the general Catholic public, for that matter—could not help but note that the official Mass text of January 1 has no mention of the beginning of the civil year. There was more confusion in the very text of the approved Missal. If you sneak a look at the big red prayer book on the altar, the sacramentary or Missal, you will find a large section of Mass formulas “For Various Needs and Occasions.” There are quite a few options—there is actually a Mass for Congress (reminiscent of King Henry II of France, who in 1593 reportedly said, “Paris is worth a Mass.”) If you look at Mass #24, you will find a formulary for “Beginning of the Civil Year.”
The opening prayer of this Mass is fitting: “Almighty God, with you there is no beginning and no end., for you are the goal of all creation. May this new year which we dedicate to you bring us abundant prosperity and growth in holy living….” So, can a parish, or diocese, or the universal Church, for that matter, use this Mass text for January 1? Well, no—because stated at the top of the Mass formulary is a stern warning: “This Mass may not be celebrated on January 1, the solemnity of Mary the Mother of God.” I won’t ask the obvious question…
So that settles that. But, “Not so fast, my friend,” as ESPN’s Lee Corso would say. I’m falling back on my memory, here, and I remember that in 1970 there was another option for January 1, instituted by Pope Paul VI himself, when he designated January 1 as the Day of World Peace, and I know we had an option to use the votive Mass for world peace, because I did that myself a number of times on January 1. I was able to find several of Pope Paul VI’s January 1 addresses on peace, as this one here. But I supposed that the practice had been discontinued until I found this post from today, from Pope Francis himself!
I guess, all things considered, it is a good idea to go to Mass on January 1—as history teaches, there is certainly no shortage of reasons.
During my first four years in the priestly ministry (1974-78) I was a chaplain at Siena College near Albany, New York, and all the students went home around December 17, after final exams. Thus there was no compelling reason for me to remain on campus, and for all my years at Siena I was recruited to serve on confession duty for the week before Christmas at two of our downtown shrine churches in New England: New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island. I spent two years at each location. New Bedford was busy enough, but Providence was the Atlanta Airport of lost sinners.
I should explain a few things here. First of all, the Franciscans, like some other religious orders, operated non-territorial service churches in the heart of major metropolitan centers. In these churches Mass was offered frequently throughout the day and confession was available at all times, along with parlor counseling and an information center. Our Manhattan shrine church had a 2 AM printers’ Mass early on Sundays after all the city’s papers were bundled and hit the streets. I seem to remember that in New Bedford there was a 1:15 AM Sunday Mass, possibly to coincide with the closing of the bars. I can’t recall exactly why, but one of the insomniac friars was regularly assigned to it.
In the 1970’s, when the tradition of confession was very strong, the desire to confess before Christmas brought huge throngs of shoppers and business folks to these centers, as the friars had a generally well-deserved reputation as both competent and caring confessors. These friary communities were staffed by dozens of veterans of ministry to the city and the confessional. For me, as a very new priest, it was a great opportunity to learn from them during coffee breaks in the schedule and late at night when the guardian unlocked the holy water closet in the rec room. The Christmas communities in these friaries were also graced with friars in graduate studies, Advent mercenaries like myself who were not quite used to our shrine church confessional schedules—two hours on and two hours off, starting at 6 AM.
One of them, a very witty Irishman, woke up at 5:55 AM for his 6 AM shift in the box. He jumped out of bed, threw on his habit, and raced to the lower church (the shrines generally have upper and lower churches and confessionals.) He threw open the sliding door of the confessional to hear his first confession, and an individual laid out an enormous trail of wrong-doing. When he finally completed his confession, my friend blurted out, “Lordy, my good man, I haven’t even had my coffee yet!” Humor aside, the confessional ministry of such churches is a remarkable phenomenon of the mid-twentieth century, and I am glad I had a chance to catch the tail end of it in my lifetime. (I visited our Manhattan and Boston sites recently, and while a confessor or two is still available on call, the shrines seem to have shifted direction to social outreach, evidently the greater demand today.)
It was a three or four-hour bus ride from Albany to New Bedford or Providence. The two competing bus lines then running that route were Almeida and Peter Pan. I have no idea if they are still in existence today. As soon as I would arrive, my name went up on the confessional board and I got my “Father Visitor” name plate to slide in the confessional door. I had heard confessions before, assisting in penance services in parishes near Siena College, and the occasional student, of course, but nothing prepares you for the shrine church experience. First of all, there is the physical experience of at least eight hours (spaced out, of course) in a totally dark box.
The religious/psychological experience, of course, is rather intense. Given the press of the holidays, many of the penitents were not making the “devotional” confession, but rather, they were reviewing long periods of time in their lives, with the emphasis upon the things that shamed them, troubled them, or put them at odds with their understanding of Church morality. They wanted to settle their hearts in the hope of having an oasis of the Christmas peace that all the Christmas cards were promising them.
From the confessor’s side, there were frustrations—at least for me—in the knowledge that their sinful and/or troubled trajectories were probably not going to be meaningfully changed by some instant wisdom on my part. Absolution, of course, imparts divine favor and genuine forgiveness, but as St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, grace builds on nature, too, and in their confessional honesty these folks were sharing their flawed natures, pain that cried out for much more than I could give them that moment.
It was a great advantage, though, to hear confessions under a corporate umbrella, so to speak. I was able to tell them that this very church has some wonderful priest-counselors, and I was able to give them names of friends whose competence was beyond question. I think the most rewarding thing about the confessional experience was the profound home that maybe this shot-in-the-dark moment of intense piety would be the beginning of a journey to health. It is no accident that our shrine churches all sheltered AA groups, for example. (Which reminds me: how I wished the inventor of the confessional had given some thought to an air-freshening system. Some sins announce themselves upon arrival.)
I had some funny experiences myself. The one that lingers with me was an impatient woman who was also pretty deaf. When I slid my little door open to her side, she was talking to herself out loud, complaining about me and how I was taking too long with the other penitent. I gently called out that I was ready, but she didn’t hear me, and the longer she didn’t hear me, her remarks about my fitness for the ministry became more and more pointed. Finally, I was able to get her attention—I think I hit the wall with my Franciscan sandal—and she pleasantly proceeded with business.
And, it was true that I worked in cities that were, uh, mobbed up. So let’s just say that yes, the Tony Soprano--Pauly Walnuts--Johnny Sacks—Christopher Moltisani folks made Christmas confession like everybody else. I was at a bit of a loss about appropriate penances, but they all seemed used to three Hail Mary’s and there were limits to my theological creativity and my nerve.
As I said, I could pretty much count on eight hours of steady confessional work. This does not include my assignments to the daily Mass schedule, the St. Anthony Novena, and the Tuesday Charismatic Mass (which was known to run well past 10 PM.) On Christmas Eve my temporary guardian would buy me an airline ticket home for the 25th and roll off a crisp hundred-dollar bill for me to take my parents to dinner. There are many worse ways to spend Christmas.
Have a wonderful Christmas Eve yourselves!
It is hard to believe that just about forty-eight hours ago I was praying in the Catholic Church in the town square of Cozumel, Mexico. I have been enjoying an all-too-brief sojourn on the Celebrity Cruise Lines “Constellation,” whose itinerary included that great favorite port of cruise line aficionados, shoppers, and partiers. The vendors in the downtown area offer everything from iced buckets of beer (6 bottles for $15), over-the-counter medications that require prescriptions in the United States, and traditional native handiwork such as shawls and blankets decorated with the name and team colors of the Iowa State Cyclones and the Edmonton Oilers, among others.
But generally it is all in good fun and even some of the very senior travelers on our ship made their way by cab or carriage from the International Port to downtown Cozumel. Margaret and I walked back and forth, and enjoyed the shade of a sidewalk cantina on the city square…though our grand purchase of two Diet Cokes did not add appreciably to the local economy. I have been there three times now, but I had yet to visit the local Catholic Church, something I try to do on my travels.
Actually there are three churches on the island of Cozumel, which sits about ten miles off the mainland of Mexico and the mother diocese of Campeche. The downtown church is St. Michael’s, which we had time to visit. It is a small church but evidently an active one, as people stopped to pray alongside of us during our visit. The edifice is a triumph of piety over liturgical directives, chock full of statues and pictures and objects of devotion. A portrait of St. John Paul II hung serenely with St. Cecelia and her lute (or the future King David; I couldn’t tell for sure.) There is a local custom whereby the faithful insert little photos of loved ones who have died or who need prayers.
Margaret and I took illicit delight in the church’s Christmas decorations. No Advent austerity here; in front of the main altar was a grand nativity stable scene, and colored Christmas lights abounded. We surmised that the crèche had been donated by worshippers over many years, because everything was out of scale. The shepherds stood like miniature chess pieces while ox and ass were disturbingly close to life-size, posed like King Kongs on a rampage of New York. But all was tranquil and prayerful, if liturgically premature. The manger was absent the baby Jesus, who would make a solemn entry at Midnight Mass, as I have seen in other Hispanic settings. I felt that our time at St. Michael’s was one of the highlights of our trip (the other being the blessing of the Holy Year door at St. Mary’s in Key West on Sunday, which we were fortunate to celebrate last Sunday in our first port shop.)
Ironically I had tucked into my suitcase a copy of Gerald R. Cragg’s The Church and the Age of Reason 1648-1789. This is one of the Penguin History of the Church Volumes that I had failed to read when it was first assigned to me in 1971. Cragg gives an overview of Western Christianity from the end of the bloody religious wars that wracked so much of the continent, up through the French Revolution. Simply summarized, he discusses the trend among thinkers, theologians, and artists of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to reinvent religion, so to speak, away from the passions of unbridled faith and fervor that had marked the post Reformation era, and toward a “worship of reason” that, in their view, would protect good order and exalt the best of the human mind.
The curious thing in this era is that the intellectuals were never quite able to reestablish religious life along the lines of good order and rational restraint. Many Roman Catholics in France, for example, disturbed the Jesuits and the royal court with a hunger for an extreme form of piety and unpredictability known as Jansenism. Perhaps better known, because of its impact upon English and American Colonial Protestantism was the great revival wrought by the preaching of George Whitfield and John Wesley, what we know today as “Methodism.”
My visit to Cozumel was a healthy reminder that the Christian experience is about the head and the heart. As I knelt in the company of other visitors to St. Michael’s, I did bring my theological experience to bear. I reflected upon the fact that the two “infancy narratives” provided by St. Matthew and St. Luke were not written as historical documentation of Jesus’ birth. No, each of the two Christmas narratives is, in the words of the late Father Raymond Brown, a predictive passion narrative. There is little in the Gospels of the Christmas season that is “cozy.” Matthew’s Jesus is persecuted from his birth by King Herod; Luke’s Jesus is born amidst the poor, a forecast that the Son of Man would have nowhere to rest his head.
But by the same token, the narratives of Christmas have reasons “that reason knows nothing about” in the words of our philosopher friend Blaise Pascal. There is something indescribably about a baby, a motherhood, that makes the doctrinal Incarnation a “felt” encounter with God. The fourth century heretics Arius and Nestorius could not bring themselves to accept the divine coming in lowly and dangerous straits, though the folks on their knees in this Mexican church were very much at home. The Catholics in Cozumel have put their empty manger at center stage to move their hearts toward the coming of God. Theirs will be a wonderful Christmas.
Given the erratic schedule that Christmas brings, and given that Thursdays in December include Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, I am going to put our serialized study of the Catechism on hold until mid-January. I will do my best to post on those days, however, so stop by as your schedule permits.
28 In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behavior: in their prayers, sacrifices, rituals, meditations, and so forth. These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that one may well call man a religious being: (843, 2566, 2095-2109)
From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “in him we live and move and have our being.”2
It has been about three weeks since we last took up the Catechism on the blog, and by way of refreshing the memory we had last looked at Paragraph 27, which established the anthropological question: what is a man? The Catechism defined the human being as created with a drive for and a capacity to know and love God. Para. 27 is a statement of faith, since human sciences cannot prove from observation and experience that (1) God exists, or (2) that the human psyche is disposed to God. The Catechism is probably wise here to make this claim in the realm of faith; for centuries, particularly in the medieval and scholastic ages, Catholic scholarship—including the great Thomas Aquinas himself—believed that God’s existence was naturally and logically observable, using such constructs as Aristotle’s “first cause.” And, given the belief of many centuries that the Scriptures were literally true, theologians maintained that the Bible itself was proof of God’s loving intent and man’s free choice to accept Baptism.
Speaking as a catechist, I think it is important to convey to serious students of faith that there are multiple ways of knowing. The post Renaissance and Enlightenment times were divided: there were those who tenaciously maintained the scholastic tradition that God and his basic teachings were knowable in a factual way through logic and history; this population included strong papal loyalists or ultramontanists and Jesuits. We have seen that during Vatican II the curial forces battled to maintain Thomism/scholasticism as the paradigm for classroom seminary instruction. Enlightenment thinkers did not believe that God—or at least his “entourage”—stood the test of the new sciences.
There was, however, a “third way” that would have considerable influence from the 1600’s and even in our present day. This segment of European and eventually American Colonial religious experience would agree with Enlightenment thinking that God cannot be proved by the everyday knowledge of books and observation. On the other hand, it recognized a kind of two sphere universe: the metaphysical divine and the objective scientific. For many thoughtful men, then, it was quite possible to embrace the reality of a data-driven world of scientific and self-sustaining principle while at the same time paying service of varying degrees to an inexpressible religious knowledge that defied easy definition.
Two figures come immediately to mind. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) put forth a philosophical theory of how the mind works in an internal system of management of outside stimuli and influences. On the other hand, he coined the principle of the “categorical imperative” to describe how living rationally is equivalent to living ethically. A clearer and more intriguing character—and a Catholic to boot—is Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Pascal was one of the greatest mathematicians of all time: he invented new formulas along with the roulette wheel and a very primitive computer-like device. In fact, the computer programming language Pascal is named in his honor. But the precise, analytic, data-driven Pascal is also remembered for his religious/mystical writing. It is Pascal who coined the phrase “the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing about.” This is hardly the language of the blackboard, but it was the language of Pascal’s association with a borderline heretical Catholic movement known as Jansenism. Jansenists were alienated from what they saw as an overly complex Catholic system, and sought a highly pietistic, passive and dependent experience of God. The religious experience of Jansenism shied away from excessive reason and engagement in external good works, particularly in matters of penance and redemption.
It is noteworthy that during the twentieth century Catholic theologians such as Karl Rahner attempted to find new formulations and build new bridges between faith and reason. But the relationship of God to his creation, most notably his human creations, will always struggle for some kind of articulation, and in fact will probably never be found in this world. Even the evangelists struggled for a language to describe the place of God in Pontius Pilate’s world.
Paragraph 28, of which I have said nothing yet, is built upon the assumption that God can speak and men can hear: it proclaims as a matter of faith a communication from God that began long before Abraham. Curiously para. 28 works from the bottom up: the prevalence of divine consciousness among so many ancient peoples that the hunger for God (or a god) must be universal. The recognition of a real if incomplete religious experience in all quarters of the world is certainly indicative of Vatican II’s influence. The God described in para. 28 is surprisingly universal; there is no specific mention of a “revealed tradition” as God works diligently among all. So we have here not just an anthropology but a cosmology as well: a hands-on description of God as the power over all. It would seem that God has his reasons that reason knows nothing about.