the candle

A hodgepodge of beauty, truth, and goodness.

Beyond mere survival

Large_Magellanic_CloudFrom Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion by John Polkinghorne, p. 56:

Once one accepts the enrichment beyond the merely material of the context in which human life is lived, one is no longer restricted to the notion of Darwinian survival necessity as providing the sole engine driving hominid development. In these noetic realms of rational skill, moral imperative and aesthetic delight—of encounter with the true, the good and the beautiful—other forces are at work to draw out and enhance distinctive human potentialities. Survival is replaced by something that one may call satisfaction, the deep contentment of understanding and the joyful delight that draws on enquirers and elicits the growth of their capacities.

Image by ESA/Hubble.

Keeping up with the Josephs

The_Holy_family_with_a_LambThe Holy Family with a Lamb by Raphael (1483-1520)

Man, the Holy Family is amazing—there’s not a weak link in that chain. You’ve got Joseph, the patron saint of the Universal Church. You’ve got Mary, the spotless Queen of Heaven. And then of course there’s Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity.

But even for this most holy of families, things were never easy. They got off to a rough start when Mary turned up pregnant with a child that was not Joseph’s. They got past that, but then when it was time for Mary to give birth, she had to do it in a barn because they were on the road and couldn’t find a hotel room. Then a jealous, conniving king tried to murder the baby, so they all had to flee to Egypt. The only episode we know about from Jesus’ childhood involved his parents panicking after they lost him in Jerusalem for the better part of a week. Joseph died while his wife was still young. Then, to cap it all off, Mary had to stand by and watch as her only son was tortured and unjustly executed. No, things were never easy for the Holy Family.

Many Christians seem to believe that if they try to follow God’s will, things should go well for them. But holiness has nothing to do with an easy life, except perhaps to militate against it. If we are truly striving to live holy lives, we should expect to face tough decisions, difficult circumstances, mockery, persecution, and even death.

If the Holy Family could not escape such trials, why should we?

More Christmas listening: ‘Lux Aurumque’

Eric Whitacre is the rock star of the choral world. His innovative “virtual choir” is a phenomenon, watched by millions online. And this lovely piece, “Lux Aurumque,” is perfect for the Christmas season.

The text is a Latin translation (by Charles Anthony Silvestri) of an English poem, “Light and Gold,” by Edward Esch:

calida gravisque
pura velut aurum
et canunt angeli
molliter modo natum.
warm and heavy
as pure gold,
and the angels sing softly
to the newborn babe.

Beauty out of horror

Peter_Paul_Rubens_Massacre_of_the_InnocentsMassacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

It’s easy to forget, among all the idyllic imagery of the Babe in the manger, and the shepherds and the angels, and the Wise Men and the star, that the story of the first Christmas gets pretty grisly and gory. But the Church doesn’t let us forget. Today is the feast of the Holy Innocents, those babies slaughtered by Herod the king in his jealous attempt to assassinate the newborn King.

When the Wise Men did not return to Herod to tell him where the baby Jesus was, he flew into “a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” (Mt 2:16). It’s hard to imagine anything worse than the murder of innocent children. And yet, somehow, the Christian tradition has drawn beauty even out of this horror, as in the 16th-century “Coventry Carol”:

P.S. The best recording of this song I know is a suitably stark and terrifying rendition by the King’s Singers.

The evangelist of the Incarnation

St_John_the_Evangelist_El_GrecoSt. John the Evangelist by El Greco (1541-1614)

Today is the feast of St. John, apostle and evangelist. John’s Gospel is great reading for the Christmas season, even though John, unlike Matthew and Luke, wrote no infancy narrative. Instead, John tried to explain the significance of Jesus’ birth, and to put the incomprehensible fact of the Incarnation into words. John’s Gospel famously begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:1,14). There’s enough substance and mystery in those few words for a lifetime of prayer and reflection.

The day Good King Wenceslas looked out

Giorgio_Vasari_Martyrdom_of_St_StephenMartyrdom of St. Stephen by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574)

Today is the feast of St. Stephen the protomartyr, the first person to be killed for his faith in Christ. His death is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.

As he was being stoned to death, Stephen echoed Christ’s own words from the cross: Jesus had cried, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Lk 23:46); Stephen called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59).

And just as Jesus had prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34), Stephen also was full of compassion to the end—his last words were a prayer for his murderers: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

Oh, to be an ox on the wall in that stable!

Christmas_NightChristmas Night by Paul Gaugin (1848-1903)

One of the great things about the Nativity is that it was the kind of thing that animals could see.

Christmas is not primarily about the more or less abstract ideas we tend to associate with it—like family, and love, and peace, and hope. It’s about a real thing that really happened—a visible event in history. I pray I’ll never get tired of remembering and rejoicing that the Son of God became a little baby boy who was born in a stable in Bethlehem a little more than 2,000 years ago, and that his mother “wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Lk 2:7).

The Son of God was there in the stable, and the Virgin Mary, and Joseph. Some shepherds showed up, and later wise men. Angels were all around. They were all praising God—and they can all seem rather abstract, poetic and remote.

But not the animals, which surely were there too. They were just normal animals, doing normal animal-type things—eating, and drinking, and pooping, and unwittingly witnessing the greatest moment in the history of the world thus far.

So Merry Christmas! Let us rejoice today, and every day, in the reality of the Incarnation, witnessed by man and beast alike. And please enjoy another setting of the O Magnum Mysterium, this one by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), performed by New York Polyphony:

O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, jacentem in praesepio! Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum. Alleluia.
O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the newborn Lord, lying in a manger! Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear Christ the Lord. Alleluia!

O great mystery!

Nativity_at_NightNativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (c. 1465-c. 1495)

Merry Christmas Eve! My gift to you below: a recording of Morten Lauridsen’s glorious setting (composed in 1994) of the Christmas text O Magnum Mysterium. A few years ago, Lauridsen wrote in The Wall Street Journal about the genesis of the piece:

For “O Magnum Mysterium,” I wanted to create … a deeply felt religious statement, at once uncomplicated and unadorned yet powerful and transformative in its effect upon the listener. …

The most challenging part of this piece for me was the second line of text having to do with the Virgin Mary. She above all was chosen to bear the Christ child and then she endured the horror and sorrow of his death on the cross. How can her significance and suffering be portrayed musically?

After exploring several paths, I decided to depict this by a single note. On the word “Virgo,” the altos sing a dissonant appoggiatura G-sharp. [Note: In this recording, this occurs at 2:51 and 3:15.] It’s the only tone in the entire work that is foreign to the main key of D. That note stands out against a consonant backdrop as if a sonic light has suddenly been focused upon it, edifying its meaning. It is the most important note in the piece.

In composing music to these inspirational words about Christ’s birth and the veneration of the Virgin Mary, I sought to impart … a transforming spiritual experience within what I call “a quiet song of profound inner joy.” I wanted this piece to resonate immediately and deeply into the core of the listener, to illumine through sound.

May your celebration of the great mystery of Christmas be truly bright and blessed! Enjoy the music!

O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, jacentem in praesepio! Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum. Alleluia.
O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the newborn Lord, lying in a manger! Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear Christ the Lord. Alleluia!

P.S. For what it’s worth, my go-to recording of this piece can be found here.

An interesting approach to the works of mercy

The Boston Globe has a very nice story today about a church I was blessed to attend while I was in college. Highrock Church in Arlington, Mass., is taking an interesting approach to the corporal works of mercy, which should be the constant occupation of all Christians.

Highrock Church wanted to be part of the fabric of the community. So it reached out to help in ways small — and not so small.

Which explains the violins and electric guitars, drums and keyboards, and roof-raising, 41-voice chorus that put on a Christmas spectacular at Highrock last weekend. Every penny in proceeds — about $15,000 — will go to the town. The money pays for a part-time social worker dedicated to helping Arlington’s neediest residents — a salary taxpayers would be hard-pressed to cover since state cuts to aid for cities and towns.

Read the rest here. And here’s a video from one of their six concerts last weekend, featuring what has always been one of my favorite Christmas songs:

The end of the world

Last_Judgment_Detail_MichelangeloThe Last Judgment (detail) by Michelangelo (1475-1564)

So, unsurprisingly, the world did not end yesterday. But as we come to the end of Advent, it’s good to remember that this season is about waiting and preparing, not only for the coming of Christ at Christmas, but also for his Second Coming at the end of the world as we know it, on “the last day” (see John 6). Each week, in the Nicene Creed, Catholics affirm their faith that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

But no calendar can tell us when that will happen. “Watch therefore,” Jesus tells us, “for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt 25:13).