Behold the Power of Feasts

“It is as a general rule a bad sign when a man has not a particular feeling of devotion on the chief feasts of the year.” -St. Philip Neri


I think I was ten before I realized that Christmas, the day we celebrate Christ’s birth, is December 25… Up to that point empirical evidence …of a sort… convinced my child mind that Christmas was December 24.  “What was this evidence that warped time and space?” you might well ask.  FOOD!

Growing up in an Italian-American household in New York, we did all our feasting on Christmas Eve.  Seven kinds of fish, capped by pastries of every stripe… Warm hugs and kisses from relatives whose names one only vaguely remembered… Picture “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” dipped in tomato sauce and you get the idea.  But that wasn’t all.  We went to mass on Christmas Eve… and as I got older, we’d sometimes even open our gifts late at night on Christmas Eve… ‘heck, even the name (at least to a ten year-old) is tricky: CHRISTMAS Eve… After all, wasn’t Jesus born at night?

My kiddie confusion was a witness to the great power of culture.  The cultural phenomenon of a feast translates the cosmic realities being feasted (in this case Christmas) in a three hundred sixty degree way… an all encompassing reality that becomes familiar, heartfelt over time, engraining those realities into one’s very being.

Feasts speak to us of truth, of goodness, of unity… but they speak to us THROUGH beauty, and ultimately find their power in her convincing ways.  Every culture has feasts… They are a hallmark of vitality and endurance… and, best as I can recollect, feasts only survive the test of ages if they celebrate something positive (again: truth good integral and beautiful).  Think about it, have you ever heard of a feast that celebrates evil?

The positive power of feasts (particularly religious feasts) is one reason why it’s so sad to hear about school districts around DC wrangling over their inclusion in the school calendar.  My primary school education was in public schools in NY, where we learned about the festal traditions of all the kids in our class.  Most of us were Christians, but no one batted an eye learning about Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or any other customs.  To us, it was all fascinating…  and at the very least a great chance to try someone else’s food.  Come to think of it, I owe my love of all DC’s many ethnic foods to the experience of encountering many religious feasts as a child even if those feasts weren’t my own.  Did experiencing all these traditions in a public school setting damage the integrity of my own religious sense?  Apparently not, I ended up becoming a Catholic priest.

Tonight (and yes, even tomorrow, Dec. 25), let us feast.  Eat, drink and be merry, something beautiful happened, “a child is born to us, a son given us,” Jesus the Savior.  Merry Christmas Washington!

Freedom’s truest expression

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Statue of Liberty frieze outside the Kennedy Center

Can anyone think of an American city with more references to freedom and liberty than Washington?  Monuments and friezes on buildings are just the beginning.  Consider our living witnesses to liberty: Protests, visitors lobbying Congress, the role of our Courts ensuring “equal justice for all,” the free exchange of ideas in our many universities, the free and flourishing interactions of religious groups, the music of any and every type that resounds from our concert halls, pubs, coffee houses and conservatories.  Even “K Street,” oligarchic as it can sometimes feel, is ultimately a testimony to the free exchange of words and ideas at the root of our civic pride.

Liberty, understood through eyes of faith, is something deeply sacred in Catholic teaching because it’s not just the heart of an artificial reality (the U.S.A., Washington DC, or some other man-made civil entity).  Liberty is at the heart of our human reality.  God made man and woman in his own image.  Unlike any other creature under heaven, he gave humanity free will, and even more uniquely, the ability to consciously and rationally self-sacrifice for the good of another.  This is the “freedom of the sons of God.”  The lived experience of that freedom is expressed most fully in this beautiful quote from Rev. John Saward’s book, Cradle of Redeeming Love, “He who made us without us, will not save us without us.”  The Father gave us freedom in the very beginning… and he is so faithful to that gift that even for the sake of our salvation, he will not “force” us to be saved.  He respects us so much he allows us to make our own decision.

As a man, as a priest, I freely choose to follow the God who would love and respect me so much.

The objection I often hear goes something like this: “If you Catholics are so into liberty, what about the inquisition, or all your rules and catechisms?”  It’s a good question.  Until fairly recently, the vast majority of those living in the Christian world generally adhered to a common set of principles/ethics and desired to help each other live those out.  Examples of these disciplines cover a huge range: abstaining from meet on Fridays, making a good confession EVERY Saturday, Giving to the poor, dressing modestly… and, yes, in the extreme, acknowledging that those who live radically outside the Christian norm with no desire to change ought not call themselves Christian (i.e. excommunication).  To the post-modern eye, these might seem like restrictions on freedom, but they’re not all that different from civil laws.  If I drive 110 mph on an empty road, and a hidden policeman pulls me over to ticket me, he does so to guard my freedom.  Driving so fast, even on an empty road could result in my death.  Disciplining me gives me the greater freedom to live.  If I commit treason, if functionally speaking, I cease to be a citizen, is it really so irrational to be be exiled?  The greater freedom of the rest of the people who do agree to live under a country’s laws depends on my no longer living in that community.

Culture has changed, many question whether a sense of “Christendom” still exists at all.  I don’t know about that myself, but I love a phrase that (I think) comes from St. John Paul II: “The Church always proposes, she never imposes.”  What we propose is a way of life characterized by the self-denial and giving that is the greatest expression of our God-given freedom.  Others are “free” to take that or leave it, but I find it beautiful.

Alleluia for the Oratorio

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Did you know that the Washington metro area has one of the highest concentration of (semi)professional choruses in the country?  It’s true, Washington is blessed with a huge number of choirs and other vocal groups.

I love choral music, as a person and particularly as a priest.  That said, there are certain choral works with which I (and many priests) have a love/hate relationship.  For example, the Ave Maria is a staple of Catholic life… loving the Ave is sort of a ‘must,’ like loving the poor, 061and embracing lepers; it’s not an option.   The Ave, however, is performed at EVERY wedding and funeral… often regardless of the soloist’s ability to sing the music.  Another such piece is Alleluia Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.  Especially during Advent/Christmas, the choirs of the Metro region will perform Handel’s Alleluia in every way imaginable: the original setting, a rock setting, a Trans-Siberian Orchestra setting, the Ella Fitzgerald scat setting, and of course, the sing-along.  If you only hear the piece once in a season, it’s no problem… but imagine how many times (and ways) I get to hear it. (Thus endeth my venting process)

All that said, the frequent performance of the Alleluia Chorus got me thinking, reexamining it through eyes (and ears) of faith.

Handel’s Messiah may be the most famous example of a great musical form: the Oratorio.  Oratorios (probably better rendered, “oratorii”) are large musical settings with storylines, characters, soloists, choirs and instruments.  Sounds like an opera, right?  Wrong.  Oratorios are concert pieces, never acted out on stage.

The oratorio began in 17th century Rome under the inspiration of St. Philip Neri.  Philip was a major proponent of using the best parts of contemporary culture to spread the experience of Christ in daily life.  Poetry readings, literary studies, talks, plays, and yes – concerts were all part of his schtick.  Great idea, right?  The only problem was that in 17th century Rome such activities were strictly forbidden in church buildings.  So…Philip and his disciples built an annex onto their church (Santa Maria in Valicella a.k.a. Chiesa Nuova).  The annex – a building used for prayer and evangelization, but not necessarily for mass – became known as an oratory, lending its name both to the musical pieces performed there and to Philip’s nascent religious community, the Oratorians.

In addition to being a performance, an oratorio is really a kind of prayer, uniquely suited to bringing God into daily life.  Yes, you leave humming the tune.  Yes, the music helps us to learn Gospel lessons in CMAA Logoa mnemonic fashion… but there’s more.  In ecclesiastical Latin, there are two categories of prayer: prex, and oratioPrex is something I initiate… I am the primary actor.  Oratio is my speaking the word’s of another (e.g. Jesus).  The other works mystically through my voice and enters not only me but – through my voice – my world.  Oratio is the category to which Mass belongs: Christ works through the voice of the priest pronouncing His words, and becomes present on the altar.  An oratorio (like Handel’s Messiah) can be a non-sacramental parallel to such prayer.

A very short list of great oratorios includes: Handel’s Messiah, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and Haydn’s Creation.  (all avail. on iTunes)

 If you’re interested in St. Philip Neri’s mission, you might check out the website for St. Thomas the Apostle in Woodley Park, DC, where an Oratorian community has been given stewardship of the parish and is doing great work.

Holiday Music, Memories and Anamnesis

Last night, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented a memorable review of classic holiday pops music at Strathmore.  They were accompanied by two fine singers (Debbie Gravitte and Ted Keegan), a host of tap-dancing Santas from the Baltimore School for the Arts, and acrobat Timber Brown.  Listening to so many seasonal favorites stirred a swarm of happy scenes from childhood… which got me thinking…

Some of my favorite memories came back to me listening to last night’s concert… vague recollections of driving in dad’s station wagon down a snowy wooded street to get pie from “that” bakery (you know, the one everyone knows has the best pie, where you have to order it a week in advance)… Another memory, much clearer, was my great aunt and uncle’s yearly Christmas party with ALL the cousins (in an Italian family that’s a lot, believe me).  I can still hear her voice teaching me how to sing “White Christmas.”

Whether we’re traveling over the hills and through the woods to grandmother’s house, or making a valiant effort to find the last quart of egg nog in town on December 24, or just trying to clear the driveway of snow in time for guests to arrive, the Christmas season can be such a rich trove of graced experiences.  Music associated with the season instantly takes us back to those realities.  It’s a cultural version of the religious experiences Catholics know as anamnesis.

Anamnesis is the memorial presentation of a reality… but it’s more than just digging up a fuzzy memory.  It’s actually living the substance and reality of the thing remembered in the present.  When at mass, praying over the bread and wine, a Catholic priest says the words of Jesus from the Last Supper, it’s as if we are all there with Jesus again.  His  Body and Blood become sacramentally present among us.  Christmas songs aren’t quite the same, but experiencing them through eyes and ears of faith can be a good way to keep not only the memories, but the realities of the season ever new in our hearts, for our good and our neighbors’.

The First Christian Artist

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“Blessed Lady, sky and stars, earth and rivers, day and night – everything that is subject to the power or use of man – rejoice that through you they are in some sense restored to their lost beauty and endowed with inexpressible new grace. …Now all creation has been restored to life and rejoices that it is controlled and given splendor by men who believe in God.”

St. Anselm’s words about today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception aptly describe not only the feast per se, but also the Catholic understanding of culture art and technology… all things on which this blog has reflected.

Catholics believe that when sin entered the human experience, it affected not only us rational beings, but all the rest of creation.  Consequently, even our greatest attempts to use the stuff of creation [i.e. culture] would always be hobbled by corruption.  The Incarnation of the Son, Christ, is (to use a modern metaphor) gene therapy for the whole of the cosmos… a treatment that (a) finds its origins in the Immaculate Conception of Mary when the Father prepared a worthy dwelling  place for the Son in the Virgin’s womb, (b) reaches full force in the birth of Jesus, and (c) comes to completion in the Passion Death and Resurrection.

Mary, then, is the first Christian artist: she infuses our world with Christ so that the things of this world might receive a heavenly orientation, leading everyone and everything back to God.  Today might be an ideal day for us to think about and/or pray for artists.  In a secular vision they are those talented people who lift our hearts and minds to higher things… but when they work with eyes of faith, they can lift our very souls to God himself.

The Miracle of Child Birth

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Walking along the street in DC this week, I noticed something I haven’t seen since I lived in Italy: an “It’s a girl!” bow… A big puffy bow proudly attached to the front door of a townhouse.  Seeing those announcements always makes me smile.  You know that the neighbors have all congratulated the family, that far-flung relatives will be coming for visits… An aura of joy seems to grace the house when that bow goes up.  It made me think of one of this season’s great Biblical quotes,

“For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.”  (Isaiah 9:5)

Every parent I’ve ever met agrees, childbirth is a miracle.  The irony is that an infant is something so self-contained, so dependent, so knowable.  Aren’t miracles all about the un-knowable?  Yes and no.

Some people say that miracles (or anything to do with God, really) are unintelligible and so they question the existence of any object of faith.  The birth of the Infant Christ gives us a clue to another way that we might consider things of faith.  Father John Saward puts it this way in his book, “Cradle of Redeeming Love” :

“When a man meets a mystery of faith, he finds not a deficiency, but an excess of intelligibility: there is just too much to understand.”

…kind of like holding a baby, be it the Infant Jesus or one’s own little sister.  That child is understandable, but there is so much there, that our minds can’t possibly grasp it all at once.  All the possibilities of a baby’s life, all the love he or she will experience and share… the feeling when an infant grips your finger with all his or her strength… the experience of being embraced by an baby with a combination of utter neediness but also clearly gratitude and love.  It’s overwhelming.  It’s miraculous.

The mysteries of God are like that, but multiplied by infinity: I can’t fully understand a baby’s embrace, but I don’t doubt the child exists.  Maybe that’s one reason the Savior decided to come to us precisely as a child.