In the carol “Good King Wenceslas“, we sing that the good king went out to serve a peasant gathering firewood “on the feast of Stephen”. The feast of Stephen is the day after Christmas in the Western calendar [two days after Christmas on the Eastern calendar] and celebrates St. Stephen, the first martyr for Christ. In Acts, chapters 6 and 7, we read that Stephen was chosen to be a special servant of the Church in Jerusalem because he was full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. It was in the context of his role as a servant that he was enabled to do miracles among the people, and this drew attention to him both among those open to the Truth of Christ and among those opposed to it. The enemies of the Church soon had Stephen arraigned before a hostile court that threw him out of the city and put to death by stoning. Continue reading
I was listening to the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” today, as recorded by Emmylou Harris. There’s something about the way she sings it that perfectly preserves that sweet simplicity that I feel like it ought to have. There’s a great little story about the writing of the carol. A certain Mr. Philip Brooks, an Episcopal priest from the 19th century who was rector of a church in Philadelphia, wrote the words as a poem after visiting Bethlehem on a trip to the Holy Land. He asked his church organist, a Mr. Lewis Redner, to compose a tune for it. Mr. Redner recounts the story like this: Continue reading
The annual cycle of seasons — of solstices and equinoxes, of agricultural death and rebirth, of the changing raiment of the trees, and of the migrations of animals — is an inescapable feature of existing on the planet Earth. Even at the equator where the Earth’s tilt makes astronomical changes like solar solstices or changing constellations not as noticeable, there are still yearly cycles of rainy and dry seasons brought about by shifting global weather patterns. From the dawn of humanity to the present, it’s safe to say that all human life is profoundly shaped by the repeating time-scale of the Year. Continue reading
The most famous sermon ever preached in Christian history has to be the one given by St. Peter to the multitude on Pentecost, as recorded in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. The second most famous sermon, however, must be one given three hundred years later by St. John Chrysostom on Pascha (Easter) morning at the great midnight vigil. But St. John’s sermon has the distinction of enjoying an ongoing career as a living homily still preached every Easter in hundreds, probably thousands, of churches across the world at their midnight vigils. The words of the homily are timeless and universal, and they magnificently describe the truth of Easter: Continue reading
In the first century, only a few years after the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, a certain man who had been living in Palestine began traveling around the Mediterranean preaching about Jesus Christ to the pagan Gentiles. I’m not talking about St. Paul, although he did travel with St. Paul. He also traveled with and assisted St. Andrew on his journeys, and is even numbered among the 70 (72) disciples sent out by Jesus in Luke 10. He knew St. Paul probably through the apostle Barnabas, his brother. And it was while traveling with Paul and Barnabas that the apostle Paul ordained him as a bishop and sent him further West than Paul could then go. This man, a brown skinned, Jewish Cypriot, hailing from Palestine, traveled more than 2,000 miles Westward toward Spain, and then northward into Britannia. Continue reading
Yesterday I crossed a decade boundary. I left my twenties behind and became a tricenarian. The age number itself –30– is almost a misnomer for the reality: I am beginning my 31st year and have started my 4th decade outside the womb. (Because on your first birthday you’ve actually just finished one year since birth and are starting your second year, your second birthday is the start of your third year, and so on). This either confuses or disturbs many people, so I’ll settle on the normal social custom of simply saying, “I turned 30.” Continue reading
Imagine for a moment that you can fly. You’re able to simply lift yourself off the ground by desiring to do so. Now imagine that you’re also able to leave earth’s atmosphere and move through space like Superman, soaring over continents and oceans, and returning to the planet in Sydney, Australia. You stop in for a quick play at the opera house, grab some fried gator tail, and lift off again heading west over the ocean toward home. You punch through the sound barrier and arrive back at home just after dark, stealthily descending so as not to be seen by any neighbors and keeping your super powers a secret. Continue reading
There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is spilt on the sand.
O Emmanuel, our King and our Law-giver, Longing of the Gentiles, yea, and Salvation thereof, come to save us, O Lord our God!
O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
O King of the Gentiles, yea, and desire thereof! O Corner-stone, that makest of two one, come to save man, whom Thou hast made out of the dust of the earth!
O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.
O Rex Gentium is the sixth of the O Antiphons sung with the Magnificat at Vespers in the days preceding Christmas Eve. Addressing Christ by the title “King of the Gentiles”, or “King of the Nations”, this prayer has deep political and anthropological implications. Continue reading
O Dayspring, Brightness of the everlasting light, Sun of justice, come to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!
O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
The fifth of the O Antiphons sung in the days leading up to Christmas Eve is O Oriens. The Latin oriens can be translated many different ways — sunrise, dawn of the east, morning star, radiant dawn — but I prefer dayspring. There’s a brightness to that word, and a freshness. As with a spring of water, you get the sense of a cool, thirst-quenching refreshment, but you simultaneously have images of fiery rays of golden-white light. It’s a good, evocative, poetic word, and a noble title. Continue reading
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, that openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth, come to liberate the prisoner from the prison, and them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death.
O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
The fourth of the O Antiphons, O Clavis David, addresses Christ by another title that comes from the book of Isaiah. In Isaiah 22, a scene is described in which a new ruler replaces an old, and this is accomplished by the Lord, who says of this new ruler that “… I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open” (Isa 22:22-23). Continue reading
O Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, at Whom the kings shall shut their mouths, Whom the Gentiles shall seek, come to deliver us, do not tarry.
O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
On December 19, five nights before Christmas Eve, the third of the great O Antiphons, Radix Jesse, is traditionally sung at the Magnificat during Vespers in the Western tradition of the Church. This antiphon is slightly more enigmatic than the the first two, but only until you’re familiar with the Scripture quotations from which it is almost entirely composed. Continue reading
O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, Who didst appear unto Moses in the burning bush, and gavest him the law in Sinai, come to redeem us with an outstretched arm!
O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
“O Adonai” is the second great antiphon attached to the Magnificat (Song of Mary), sung in the monastic evening prayer in the days leading up to Christmas. These short poetic lines have a mindfully expectant tone, addressing Christ by different titles and imploring him to come. Unlike the first antiphon “O Sapientia” which addresses Christ by a cosmic, universal title, O Adonai is a more personal, relational title, related specifically to the house of Israel. I’ll come back to the title itself in a moment, but first I want to point out the context of the title: the Exodus. Continue reading
Halloween is scary — apparently. From every corner of digital Christendom is sounding the quaking alarm that participation in Halloween is tantamount to inviting the devil into your house. Hearsay about pagan origins and evil practices abounds. Even cooler-headed writers skeptical of the dubious beginnings of trick-or-treating and jack-o-lanterns warn that the overall character of Halloween is unprofitable at best and harmful at worst. But there’s a countering voice among Christians (and among people of other religions or none) that Halloween is totally innocent fun, that it’s inconsequential, vacant amusement. I personally think Halloween may be more complex and interesting than either of those positions makes it out to be. Continue reading
I’ve gotten into the accidental habit of critically reflecting on American holidays. That can be an alienating habit, and one in bad taste, when we’re rewarded so handsomely by the economic machine for unreflectively participating as consumers in the one-day sales and holiday discounts. But it turns out I’m not the only one critically reflecting on Columbus Day lately. Continue reading
Tomorrow is the Feast of the Holy Cross, also called the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Creating Cross. This holy day is truly universal, celebrated across the world in the traditions of both Western and Eastern Christianity, but its roots are deeply historical and come from specific places and events. The first event this feast hearkens back to is the vision of the cross that Constantine saw in the sky just before winning the battle which would win him the Roman Empire. Until the time of Constantine, Christians were persecuted in the empire because they refused to acknowledge the pantheon of Roman gods and because they acknowledged a true Lord who was above the Cesar. After Constantine’s vision, he attributed his victory to the God of the Christians and passed the edict of Milan, legalizing Christianity and bringing it to the forefront culturally. Continue reading
In the reign of the emperor Trajan, at the start of the second century A.D., a man named Ignatius, who was the bishop of the Church in Antioch, was arrested for not sacrificing to the Roman gods. Around the year 108, he was thrown to the lions in the colosseum in Rome, and the account of his martyrdom has been preserved in the Church. The Church also preserved several letters that he wrote in his captivity — letters to the Philadelphian Christians, the Romans, the Trallians, the Magnesians, the Smyrnians, and the Ephesians. In his letter to the Church in Ephesus, St. Ignatius commends the Christians for holding true to the faith which was delivered to them — the faith he was going to die for — and not listening to the heresies of itinerant preachers, and he exhorts them to listen to their bishop, to assemble together frequently, and to celebrate God’s Eucharist, calling it the medicine of immortality and the antidote to death. Continue reading
In the desert monastery called Mar Saba near Jerusalem, a man now known as St. John Damascene (c. 676 – 749) would conclude his day of work and prayer by approaching his bed and praying:
O Master, Lover of mankind, is this bed to be my coffin, or will You enlighten my wretched soul with another day? Behold, the coffin lies before me; behold, death confronts me…
When I was a kid I lived in a neighborhood that was relatively safe to run around in and explore. There was a small creek that ran through the neighborhood, and I used to play on its small muddy banks. I’d take the route from my house that wound through my neighbors’ back yards, through dense foliage, between trees, and behind fences, until I could hear the faint babbling of the water and saw the sun only reaching the ground in a few thin shafts that squeezed through the dancing, leafy canopy above. The somewhat isolated creek had its own character and feel, and its banks and surrounding grounds became a secret garden. I was probably only a few hundred yards from my house, but it was a world away. Continue reading