Tuesday, 31 December 2013

January 1, Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

January 1, Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
Although New Year's Day is not celebrated by the Church, this day has been observed as a holy day of obligation since early times due to the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Each family and country has different traditional foods to eat on New Year's Day, with lentils being the main superstition: ill luck befalling those who do not eat lentils at the beginning of the year.
New Year's is a day of traditional hospitality, visiting and good cheer, mostly with a secular view, but there is no reason that this day, too, could not be sanctified in Christ. 
 Catholic Culture

Office Reading

From a letter by Saint Athanasius, bishop
  (Epist. Ad Epicetum, 5-9; PG 26, 1-58, 1062, 1066)

The Word took our nature from Mary   
  The Apostle tells us: The Word took to himself the sons of Abraham, and so had to be like his brothers in all things. He had then to take a body like ours. This explains the fact of Mary’s presence: she is to provide him with a body of his own, to be offered for our sake. Scripture records her giving birth, and says: She wrapped him in swaddling clothes. Her breasts, which fed him, were called blessed. Sacrifice was offered because the child was her firstborn. Gabriel used careful and prudent language when he announced his birth. He did not speak of “what will be born in you” to avoid the impression that a body would be introduced into her womb from outside; he spoke of “what will be born from you” so that we might know by faith that her child originated within her and from her.

By taking our nature and offering it in sacrifice, the Word was to destroy it completely and then invest it with his own nature, and so prompt the Apostle to say: This corruptible body must put on incorruption; this mortal body must put on immortality.

This was not done in outward show only, as some have imagined. This is not so. Our Savior truly became man, and from this has followed the salvation of man as a whole. Our salvation is in no way fictitious, nor does it apply only to the body. The salvation of the whole man, that is, of soul and body, has really been achieved in the Word himself.

What was born of Mary was therefore human by nature, in accordance with the inspired Scriptures, and the body of the Lord was a true body: It was a true body because it was the same as ours. Mary, you see, is our sister, for we are all born from Adam.

The words of Saint John: The Word was made flesh, bear the same meaning, as we may see from a similar turn of phrase in Saint Paul: Christ was made a curse for our sake. Man’s body has acquired something great through its communion and union with the Word. From being mortal it has been made immortal; though it was a living body it has become a spiritual one; though it was made from the earth it has passed through the gates of heaven.

Even when the Word takes a body from Mary, the Trinity remains a Trinity, with neither increase nor decrease. It is for ever perfect. In the Trinity we acknowledge one Godhead, and thus one God, the Father of the Word, is proclaimed in the Church.


O pure and holy Virgin,
how can I find words to praise your beauty?
The highest heavens cannot contain God whom you carried in your womb.

Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Mass 6th Day within Christmas of the Nativity of the Lord.

Father Marie-Domenique Philippe O.P. (+2006) 

Monday 30th December 2013.
Gospel, Luke 2:36-40.
She spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem’.
Anna and Mary
A widow of "great age" who "did not depart from the Temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day" (Lk 2:37), moved by the Holy Spirit, begins to give glory to God and to speak of the Child Jesus "to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem". Before John the Baptist, who will be "the voice of one crying in the wilderness" to announce the coming of the Messiah, after the angels who glorified God in the highest, there is this poor widow in the Temple, who is the first to announce the good news. This prophetess of the tribe of Asher is there as the representative of all the other prophetesses of the Old Testament who bore witness to God's merciful providence.
The mystery of the Presentation really brings together in the Temple all that was living and true in the Old Testament. The Holy Spirit brings them together in God's house so that they may be able to receive this first visit of Christ to the Temple to share in his mystery by recognising that the period of expectation has finally ended and that the Light appears and begins to rise.
This mystery shows us how the union of the Old and the New Testaments is found in Mary, how in and through her the Old Testament is assumed by the New without being abolished: the Old Testament is completely transformed. She is the woman who closes and completes the Synagogue and the woman who is the Mother and prototype of the Church.
This union is achieved through the mystery of the cross, but Mary must first live this mystery in her faith, her hope, and her love. This mystery must take complete possession of her soul before being accomplished out­wardly in Christ's body. She must carry it in the inmost depths of her heart, and this is truly what constitutes this mystery of offering and purification, which is actually one and the same mystery. For every offering brings about a purification, and every divine purification must be an offering.

Father Marie-Domenique Philippe O.P. (+2006) a Dominican priest was the founder of the Community of 5t John and taught philosophy and theology.

Evangelist St. John, to be proclaimed "Best Friends Day." Post ...


Best Friends Day

I hereby proclaim December 27, Feast of the Apostle and Evangelist St. John, to be "Best Friends Day." This is, after all, "the disciple Jesus loved," the favorite among the Twelve apostles. With St Andrew he was the first (literal) follower of Jesus, and the witness to all the major events in the public life of Jesus. He stood under the cross, took Christ's bereaved mother in, ran to the tomb on Easter Day (where "he saw and believed" what had not yet been announced). John is a wonderful patron and image of a faithful friend.

Is it possible that friendship is a notion we need to reclaim as a culture?

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Sixth day in the Octave of Christmas

Christmas: December 30th

Sixth day in the Octave of Christmas 

» Enjoy our Liturgical Seasons series of e-books!
It would be ideal if we could devote several days of the Christmas octave to quiet contemplation, entering ever more deeply into the sweet and profound mystery of the Incarnation; yet much of the time is devoted to the saints. All the more precious, therefore, is this day, an unencumbered Christmas day. 

December 30, Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas
God is your beatitude. The things of time are toys. You are eternity's child and your eternity has already begun! There is a compelling urgency to every day and every hour of the day. In it we are to witness to the truth — that God greeted and gifted us at Christmas.
If you know what witness means, you understand why God brings St. Stephen, St. John, and the Holy Innocents to the crib in the cave as soon as Christ is born liturgically. To be a witness is to be a martyr. Holy Mother Church wishes us to realize that we were born in baptism to become Christ — He who was the world's outstanding Martyr. — Love Does Such Things, by Rev. M. Raymond, O.C.S.O.

John the Beloved (3) in Christmas Octave,

Google 'liquorice all sorts' on John  the Beloved; ranges the whole disarray of views.
I was relieved to find the "Help For Christians" link.

Judas, Peter and John(back to top)
Detail from The Last Supper

This group is where something quite specific is happening.

Since Leonardo was using the New Testament account as the basis for the picture, it is not surprising that the text makes everything perfectly clear. St. John's Gospel (chapter 13, verses 21 to 26) describes the event in these words:

Jesus said:
'Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.'

The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking.

One of his disciples - the one whom Jesus loved
 [John] - was reclining next to him;

Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking.

So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, 'Lord, who is it?'

Jesus answered, 'It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.'

So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas...

The other Gospel accounts are very similar to one another and will have been familiar to the friars as they ate, and to Leonardo. They add the detail -

Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.
(Luke 22:23)

In addition, both Mark and Matthew record the question 'Surely, not I?'

Leonardo naturally incorporates this detail which dovetails so neatly with St. John's account, and such questioning is most apparent in the Apostles on the right, numbers 7, 9 and 11.

The Key Group
The three in the second and visually 'lowest' group are:
  • Judas the Treasurer and Traitor
  • Simon Peter the Leader
  • John ('the disciple whom Jesus loved') or, according to the Da Vinci CodeSt. Mary Magdalene.

They are a fascinating bunch, and are worth close attention.

a) Judas, the Treasurer and Traitor
Judas, was the 'keeper of the purse', i.e. the Apostles' treasurer. He is the odd one out in the company, but at this stage he is not yet known to be the traitor by the other Apostles.

Leonardo had a complex set of requirements to meet.

i) He had to identify Judas for the viewer.
ii) He had to make Judas's position close enough to Jesus so that Jesus, moments later, can give him the piece of dipped bread as St. John's Gospel records.
iii) He had somehow to set Judas apart, but without jumping-the-gun and depicting him as the Traitor.

Leonardo accomplishes this in six ways:

  1. Judas is the only Apostle identified by his traditional symbol. In his case it is always a leather money-purse: he holds it in his right hand as he rests his arm on the table.
  2. As Judas has to be able to receive the dipped bread from Jesus, his other arm is stretched out along the table towards Jesus's hand.
  3. With his hands and arms clearly well onto the table, this position enables Judas to be nearer us than the other Apostles are. Visually Judas is on a different plane from the rest, and views Jesus differently - this is theologically true also.
  4. Judas is able to look back at Jesus. While the other Apostles are in the light, Judas's face is in comparative darkness because of his very different position. His face in shadow acts as a camouflage, and Leonardo does his best to merge Judas into his background (which happens to be Simon Peter).
  5. Judas's head is lower than all the others. He is given a green outer robe (in contrast to Jesus's red garment), and his hair is darker than most.
  6. Leonardo depicts Judas's face in even less than full profile.

These factors combine with considerable effect. Anyone who was asked quickly to count the number of Apostles' might easily see only eleven at first glance.

b) Simon Peter, the Leader
The next Apostle in the irregular row of heads is Peter. He is primarily identified by what he is doing - although he is also portrayed with his traditional short beard and receding hair. He is visually emphasised by Leonardo's placing of him so that the line of the rear corner of the room 'points' down to him.

In St. John's account 'Peter motioned to him [John] to ask Jesus.' Peter, being the leader, acts as spokesman for them all.
Peter's left hand is visible just below John's face and points to Jesus. This is what is being said at the moment that Leonardo chose to depict, and so is of the utmost importance.

Apostles 10, 11 and 12 seem also to be talking, but it is what Jesus has just said (made clear by the shock of the Apostles) and what Peter is saying to John that constitute the event.

To make this clear to the viewer Leonardo places Peter's and John's heads extremely close and visually uses Peter's pointing hand to link them even tighter. Ask the casual observer 'Who is obviously speaking?' and 'Who is obviously listening?' and they cannot but point to Peter and John in the second group, because Leonardo's visual signals are so strong.

Having had to place Peter and John so close, Leonardo was faced with the problem of the composition of this group. Judas's position made his head much lower than anyone else's. To unite this second group of Apostles, Leonardo has to get Peter's, John's and Judas's heads more closely related.

Leonardo accomplishes this with an amazing visual trick. He paints the bodies of Peter and Judas in such a way that Peter, who occupies the fourth seat, ends up as head number 5, and Judas in the fifth seat ends up as head number 4!

Leonardo crosses the two bodies of Peter and Judas; two so 'diametrically opposed' followers as we might say. One is craning forward towards Jesus while the other is leaning away from him and not reacting at all.

This results in lowering Peter's head, so John in turn has to lean down towards Peter to listen to him.

In addition, John's leaning to hear Peter above the hubbub caused by Jesus's prediction, stops John blocking the viewer's sight of the first window. This serves Leonardo well because he did not want a mirror image of the two outside windows, and he intended to block the right hand one. The leaning of John clears the view to see the Tuscan countryside 'beyond', and this stops the extended room from becoming claustrophobic.

The 'V' of the composition that Dan Brown claims is so important is caused simply by Leonardo's solutions to these many demands.

Basically it is John's leaning to listen to the leaning Peter that creates the 'V' gap between Jesus and the second trio of Apostles. (There is a notable, but flatter, 'V-gap' between the third and fourth groups of Apostles.)

While Brown emphasises the 'V-space' of what is not there, I expect Leonardo would stress the importance of what is there in the two side-by-side triangles that create the empty 'V': Jesus on the right, and the figures of Judas, Peter and John on the left. The meaning of the painting, what is happening and why, is almost all indicated by Jesus and the Judas-Peter-John group.

On the right side of the mural there is less happening, but just as Leonardo used the line of the left-hand far corner of the room to point us to Peter, so he uses the right hand corner to point us to Philip. Leonardo uses other means to draw our attention to him. He is the only one in bright red on the right hand side, and he is the highest figure in the composition - the most 'up' member of the most 'up' group.

His impressive stance, with both hands on his heart, is the traditional - and obvious - one to indicate penitence and sorrow. Philip is the focus of the question that struck the hearts of all present (except Judas): 'Is it I?' (To use the old and more familiar translation).

Leonardo goes well towards capturing the sheer anguish that must have laid behind the terrible question. It is well to be reminded that Judas committed suicide after his betrayal of Jesus - such was the weight of the dreadful deed. When Jesus declared that someone would betray him - that potential weight fell on all of them. This is the moment that Leonardo depicts - immediately before the answer is given - and why there is such consternation portrayed among the Apostles.

Is this a dagger... ?
There is a further detail regarding Peter.
Judas, Peter and John

In the same Gospel account we read how Jesus and the disciples left and went to the Garden they knew well (Gethsemane). There Judas arrived with armed soldiers and police. Jesus, with Judas by him, steps forward three times to declare that he is the one they are looking for. Finally he says:

'I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.'...

Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it,
struck the high priest's slave,
and cut off his right ear.
The slave's name was Malchus.

Jesus said to Peter,
'Put your sword back into its sheath...'

It is probably Peter's impetuosity and eagerness to fight for Jesus that led Leonardo to place a knife in Peter's right hand. In size it is ambiguously both a large knife and a short sword. It would also, perhaps, strengthen Peter's identity for the regular monastic diners for whom the picture was painted, and who would know - almost by heart - the Gospel accounts. The friars' greater familiarity with the Gospel text would enable them to make links instantly that most of us Christians nowadays would only manage to make more slowly!

Readers must realise that the painting is now in a safe but terrible condition.
The patchiness of the surviving paint-work makes it look nowadays as if the knife might not be held by Peter but by a disembodied arm! - as Dan Brown believes. In fact Peter's right wrist is doubled-back on his hip. Leonardo's preparatory drawing for the arm is in Windsor and shows the sharply bent wrist clearly. I have just replicated Peter's arm in front of a mirror while holding a bread-knife! Leonardo is accurate as always. There's no need for any 'third arm' theory!

The knife is apparent just behind Judas's back, but it is safely pointing away from him. Although not a very 'natural' position it is difficult to see in what other way Peter could plausibly have held it and have made it visible to the viewers.

(However, the knife inadvertently points rather threateningly to Apostle number 3 in the adjoining group! At first sight his two hands may be raised in horror at Jesus's prediction of his betrayal. However his lowered eyelids suggest to me that he may have just looked down and reacted in horror at the knife - the blade of which appears all-too-close to his stomach as Peter suddenly lurches forward to speak to John. It is only a possibility, and is of no importance.)

Dan Brown sees Peter thrusting the edge of his hand blade-like across St. Mary Magdalene's neck as an expression of his jealousy that Mary would become the leader of the Church, as described in the Apocryphal Gospel of Mary Magdalene

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Feast of the Holy Family. Sunday in the Octave of the Nativity

Christmas: December 29th

Feast of the Holy Family

December 29, Feast of the Holy Family
Today is the feast day of the Holy Family, but also every family's feast day, since the Holy Family is the patron and model of all Christian families. Today should be a huge family feast, since it is devoted entirely to the Holy Family as a model for the Christian family life. As Rev. Edward Sutfin states:
"The children must learn to see in their father the foster-father St. Joseph, and the Blessed Mother as the perfect model for their own mother. The lesson to be learned is both practical and theoretical, in that the children must learn how to obey and to love their parents in thought, word and action, just as Christ was obedient to Mary and Joseph. Helping mother in the kitchen and in the house work, and helping father in his odd jobs about the home thus take on a new significance by being performed in a Christ-like spirit." (True Christmas Spirit, ©1955, St. Meinrad Archabbey, Inc.)
Commentary of the day : 
Pope Francis 
Encyclical « Lumen fidei / The Light of faith »,     §52-53 (trans. © Libreria Editrice Vaticana) 

Faith and the journey of the family

Faith and the family: In Abraham’s journey towards the future city (Heb 11,10), the Letter to the Hebrews mentions the blessing which was passed on from fathers to sons (Heb 11:20-21). The first setting in which faith enlightens the human city is the family. I think first and foremost of the stable union of man and woman in marriage. This union is born of their love, as a sign and presence of God’s own love... Grounded in this love, a man and a woman can promise each other mutual love in a gesture which engages their entire lives and mirrors many features of faith. Promising love for ever is possible when we perceive a plan bigger than our own ideas and undertakings, a plan which sustains us and enables us to surrender our future entirely to the one we love. Faith also helps us to grasp in all its depth and richness the begetting of children, as a sign of the love of the Creator who entrusts us with the mystery of a new person. So it was that Sarah, by faith, became a mother, for she trusted in God’s fidelity to his promise (Heb 11:11).
In the family, faith accompanies every age of life, beginning with childhood: children learn to trust in the love of their parents. This is why it is so important that within their families parents encourage shared expressions of faith which can help children gradually to mature in their own faith. Young people in particular, who are going through a period in their lives which is so complex, rich and important for their faith, ought to feel the constant closeness and support of their families and the Church in their journey of faith.

This is what St Bernard of Clairvaux said in this regard, ‘God, to whom angels submit themselves and who principalities and powers obey, was subject to Mary; and not only to Mary but Joseph also for Mary’s sake [….]. God obeyed a human creature; this is humility without precedent. A human creature commands God; it is sublime beyond measure.’ (First Homily on the ‘Missus Est’).

Friday, 27 December 2013

Day Four of Christmas

Christmas: December 28th

Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs

December 28, Feast of the Holy Innocents
The Holy Innocents saved the Child Jesus from death by King Herod by the shedding of their own blood. The Holy Innocents are the special patrons of small children, who can please the Christ Child by being obedient and helpful to parents, and by sharing their toys and loving their siblings and playmates.
The feast of the Holy Innocents is an excellent time for parents to inaugurate the custom of blessing their children. From the Ritual comes the form which we use on solemn occasions, such as First Communion. But parents can simply sign a cross on the child's forehead with the right thumb dipped in holy water and say: May God bless you, and may He be the Guardian of your heart and mind—the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Holy Innocents
Today, dearest brethren, we celebrate the birthday of those children who were slaughtered, as the Gospel tells us, by that exceedingly cruel king, Herod. Let the earth, therefore, rejoice and the Church exult — she, the fruitful mother of so many heavenly champions and of such glorious virtues. Never, in fact, would that impious tyrant have been able to benefit these children by the sweetest kindness as much as he has done by his hatred. For as today's feast reveals, in the measure with which malice in all its fury was poured out upon the holy children, did heaven's blessing stream down upon them.
"Blessed are you, Bethlehem in the land of Judah! You suffered the inhumanity of King Herod in the murder of your babes and thereby have become worthy to offer to the Lord a pure host of infants. In full right do we celebrate the heavenly birthday of these children whom the world caused to be born unto an eternally blessed life rather than that from their mothers' womb, for they attained the grace of everlasting life before the enjoyment of the present. The precious death of any martyr deserves high praise because of his heroic confession; the death of these children is precious in the sight of God because of the beatitude they gained so quickly. For already at the beginning of their lives they pass on. The end of the present life is for them the beginning of glory. These then, whom Herod's cruelty tore as sucklings from their mothers' bosom, are justly hailed as "infant martyr flowers"; they were the Church's first blossoms, matured by the frost of persecution during the cold winter of unbelief.
— St. Augustine

Saint John the Beloved

John the Beloved prompted by Peter,
and to left James nudged Pater

Sacristy: Tapestry of the Last Supper 

 John son of Zebedee, Disciple, Apostle. Evangelist, John the Beloved, John the Divine.

The Feast of Saint John in Christmas Octave is especially identified as John the Beloved.
In the college of the 12 Apostle, the name of John is multiplied, (Main Document; Word found 76 items matching the criteria).
Three texts give the best indications centreing on John the Beloved.

1. Only John and Peter were sent into the city to make the preparation for the Last Supper (Luke 22:8). 

2. At the Supper itself his place was next to Christ on Whose breast he leaned (John 13:2325). 

3. After the Resurrection John with Peter was the first of the disciples to hasten to the grave and he was the first to believe that Christ had truly risen (John 20:2-10).

James the Less nudged to Peter -
to prompt John - to ask Jesus
Print from Il Cenacolo, Milano

Thursday, 26 December 2013

The 12 Days of Christmas

Christmas: December 27th

Feast of St. John, apostle and evangelist

December 27, Feast of Saint John
St. John was born in Bethsaida, and like his brother James, was a fisherman. He was called while mending his nets to follow Jesus. He became the beloved disciple of Jesus. He wrote the fourth Gospel, three Epistles and the Apocalypse. His passages on the pre-existence of the Word, who by His Incarnation became the light of the world and life of our souls, are among the finest of the New Testament.
He is the evangelist of the divinity of Christ and His fraternal love. With James, his brother and Simon Peter, he was one of the witnesses of the Transfiguration. At the Last Supper, he leans on the Master's breast. At the foot of the cross, Jesus entrusts His Mother to his care. John's pure life kept him very close to Jesus and Mary. In years to come John was exiled to the island of Patmos under Emperor Domitian, but lived to an old age. — From the Daily Roman Missal.  

Eve of Christmas, Poem by Sr. Miriam ocso

Anthurium plant joins
the Christmas tree gifts

Tuesday 24 December
COMMENT on Luke 1:67-79
“Our God from om high will bring the rising to visit us”.

The Poem 'Where the Pictures Came From"

Angels are seldom overheard. But try.
Go listen.

They might be remembering.
They might be whispering about the night
they seeded the sky with embers
and it caught

All over the place, the sky took fire.
Astronomers, on various corners of the earth,
reported a shower of burning embers.

This was the night-angels will tell you–
when they clambered over the poles
and raced each other through the tundra,
and swam a hundred mountain lakes,
shaking the water off like seals,
and kept on going.

They knew they were wanted.

It had to be night, they'll tell you,
because night is so simple, so all one thing,
even when burnt with embers.

And God had poured himself so flawlessly
into a human heart
that nothing less simple than night
could venture an explanation.

The angels got there, they will tell you.
They ran up the hill, singing a song the colour of darkness,
chanting like sea bells
in places of no horizon.

They stood in a circle on the floor of a cave,
and drew pictures on its walls
to entertain the visitors .

And rocked in their song
an infant of one hour's age,
who was as old as God.

Sister Miriam Pollard, o.c.s.o.
Sister Miriam Pollard is a Cistercian nun
at Santa Rita Abbey in Sonoita. Arizona.

Christmas, remarkable story. Merton Journal

Fr. William H. Shannon 1917-2012

Msgr. William H. Shannon, founding president of the International Thomas Merton Society, died on April 29, 2012.
The Merton Journal is pleased to publish in this Advent issue a Christmas homily given by Bill Shannon in 2009.  ADVENT 2012: VOLUME 19 NUMBER 2   

is No Ordinary Time
Bill Shannon

I am sure you have all had the experience of having an eye examination and having drops put in your eyes that dilate the pupils. When the pupils of the eyes are dilated, wonderful things happen. Your eyes become wide-angle lenses. Your vision is widened and expanded. You see things you could never see before. Headlights on on­coming cars are no longer just white lights: they are all aglow with sparkles spilling out in all direc­tions. And the traffic lights aren't just signals; they are Christmas trees with lights going on and off, flashing first red colours all around and then green. Yes, with your eyes widened and your vision expanded, you see so much that you never see in your more prosaic moments.
That experience, so it seemed to me, may be taken as a kind of para­digm of the Christmas experience. Christmas is a feast that expands our vision. We see the night sky all lit up. The Christmas event-the birth of Mary's Child-has to be placed at night, of course. It just wouldn't work during day time. We must have the night-with brilliant sparkling stars and glorious colours, with angels dancing and sing­ing, and the glory of God shining all about for a people who for so long a time have been sitting in darkness.
Now it's true we don't usually see angels-on ordinary days, that is. But Christmas is no ordinary time. It's a time when we see lights and angels. The angels sing to us, but ... at least so I think ... first they dance and sing lullabies to an infant that is 'one hour's age, yet old as God' (borrowed from a poem by my friend, Sr. Miriam Pollard, OCSO).
They dance and sing for us too. And their song is about God who, in the words of the poet, 'has poured himself so flawlessly into a human heart' (Sr. Miriam again). Lest we see only an infant in a manger bed, the angels expand our vision and we see One who is David's son and Mary's son, yet God's Son as well. And above all, He's a Saviour. That's what they call him: a Saviour who is Lord and Messiah. The angels dilate the eyes of our hearts, and we see what the eyes in the head can never see.

Twenty years ago, while in Jerusalem, I heard a remarkable Christmas story. As far as I know it is a true story. It's about a couple who years ago lived in a home that was built above the Damascus Gate of the Old City. They were a well-to-do couple. They were Christian. And it was Christmas Eve. They locked the door of their home and set out for the short bus trip to Bethlehem. They would get there in time for the midnight Mass. It would be celebrated by the Latin Patriarch in Bethlehem. As they took the road to Bethlehem, they came upon a young couple-younger than they-walking slowly and hesitantly toward the gate. They were obviously poor and the woman was obviously pregnant.

The older couple who were on their way to Bethlehem were moved with compassion for them. 'Can we direct you to wherever you are going?' they asked. The young man said: 'We are poor and we don't really know where we are going.' And the young man and his wife moved on. The older couple hesitated. But, if they didn't hurry, they would be late for the Mass.
The remarable story - recalls my
footsteps at the place in Christmas 2004

They started walking toward the bus that would take them to Bethlehem. All at once they stopped. As if in unison, they said to one another: 'What are we doing? We are not going toward Bethlehem. We are going away from Bethlehem. Bethlehem came to us and we didn't even recognize it.' The eye of their hearts had been dilated. Their vision was expanded. They turned about, caught up with the young couple and offered them the hospitality of their home. And there in the house at the Damascus Gate, the young woman gave birth to her first-born son. And maybe, just maybe, the older couple saw angels dancing and singing and stars shining brightly ... over the Damascus Gate.

That house over the Damascus Gate still exists. When the older couple decided years later to go elsewhere, they donated their house to the city and it became a hospital. But they would never forget that one night it had been Bethlehem for them.

Christmas is a feast that we can appreciate only if we allow the eyes of our hearts to be dilated. We have to give up our everyday vision: a vision that can see only the little things right before us. We have to hear Paul telling us: 'The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.' We have to look beyond surface facts and see mystery: the mystery of a tiny Child just born who is yet older than the universe.
We have to expand our vision. Like the older couple in Jerusalem, we have to open the eyes of our hearts to see that mystery of Bethlehem is never far away. We will find Bethlehem in the poor, in the lonely, in those for whom our world has no more room than it had for Mary's Child.
Today we should look for Bethlehem in the refugee camps in Iraq, Afghanistan, and so many other places where mothers may be giving birth to children this very day in conditions of terrible misery, poverty and piercing cold, where mothers who have already given birth try desperately to keep their infant children warm and fed-and alive.
Nearer at home, we could very well see Christmas as a time to remember single parents. I recall one past Christmas when a mother, filled with sadness and feelings of helplessness, told me about her daughter who just a few days earlier had given birth to a baby with­out the support of a partner. The woman's husband was terribly upset: he refused to allow their daughter to come home for Christmas. This was a mixed up situation, to be sure, where many emotions were struggling to surface. I think there are many such young women for whom there is no room, as there was no room for God's Son when he came into our midst. Mary would have empathized with such young women. For Mary surely knew what people had been saying about her. ...behind her back, of course. But these were people who had never allowed the eyes of their hearts to be dilated.
Thomas Merton has written:
[Christ's] place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power, because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, extermi­nated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst .. .It is in these that he hides himself, [the people] for whom there is no room.
(Raids on the Unspeakable, pp.72-73)
But we can grasp this deepest meaning of today's holy feast, only when we have allowed the eyes of our hearts to be dilated, only when we have let our vision be expanded. For only then can we hear the rustling of angel wings and the songs that angels sing. For isn't it obvious that such songs can be heard only by those whose hearts are opened wide? For otherwise there is no room in which angels can sing.

Fr. William H. Shannon 1917-2012  
Msgr. William H. Shannon, founding president of the International Thomas Merton Society, died on April 29, 2012. Fr. Shannon, professor emeritus in the religious studies department at Nazareth College, and a priest of the Diocese of Rochester, New York, was the author of numerous books, including the much acclaimed biography of Merton, Silent Lamp, and Thomas Merton 's Paradise Journey: Writings on Contemplation. He was the general editor of the Thomas Merton letters, and co-author of The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia with Christine Bochen and Patrick F. O'Connell, as well as a number of books on spirituality, and has been published in many journals. Fr. Shannon was honoured at the 2009 ITMS
conference in Rochester.
The Merton Journal is pleased to publish in this Advent issue a Christmas homily given by Bill Shannon in 2009.