The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Monday, December 26, 2016

The trouble with Christmas

NOTE: The following is the homily delivered this day in the Archabbey Church by Fr. Guerric DeBona, O.S.B., on this Feast of St. Stephen. Here, he considers the troubling juxtaposition of the joy of Christmas with the bloody martyrdom recalled in the feasts which fall within the Christmas Octave: St. Stephen, the Holy Innocents on December 28, and St. Thomas Becket on December 29.

I will never get the Christmas Octave. I don’t know about you, but these days following the joyful celebration of the Lord’s Nativity continue to baffle me.

Unlike the Easter Octave, these days seemingly lack a sense of continuity, happiness, and peace certainly present in the eight days celebrating the Lord’s Resurrection; that time cascades us though Christ’s appearances, echoes the Spirit’s power in the Acts of the Apostles, and draws the Church into the transcendent sequence Victime Pascale Laudes.

By contrast, after unbundling the joy of yesterday’s solemnity, the Church today wears red—not to extend yesterday’s peace as much as to razor us jarringly into the often gruesome deaths of martyrs. Stephen, Thomas Becket, and the Holy Innocents create a path for the Christian community which resembles nothing less than wading through rough terrain with more than occasional glimmers of dangerous broken glass.

Paradoxically, it would seem as if secular culture excels at extending the joys of Christmas.  People receive bonus checks and often have off several of the days following Christmas to spend with their families. Not a few parents will be gingerly assembling a young child’s doll house or mustering instructions for the latest video game. There will be visits to the Miracle Mile in Chicago or the Ice Rink at Rockefeller Plaza on Fifth Avenue, not to mention office parties and open house get-togethers amid the dazzling lights on Christmas trees. These are the “Partridge in  a Pear Tree” days of “four calling birds, three French hens, and two turtle doves.” They delightfully extend Christmas Day into not just a few, but 12; people of good will then are all led back to the stable and join the Wise Men on the Epiphany.

Sounds like a good idea to me; nobody ever dies when friends raise a fluted glass of asti spumante and kiss under a mistletoe. So, I ask again: who put the bloody Octave in Christmas?

Well, I will hazard a guess. St. Stephen, Deacon and Proto-Martyr, put the Octave in Christmas by kick-starting sober Christianity’s service written in blood. The difference between the Easter Octave and these days following Christmas is that this Octave concerns witness while Easter realizes its fulfillment.

Stephen’s diaconate of service and testimony becomes linked with Christ’s own witness when the Lord says in today’s Gospel (Matthew 10:17-22): “You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved.” These are sober words about real life Christian testimony, which traces its origins to St. Stephen. And indeed, the account of Stephen’s stoning in Acts (6:8-10; 7:54-59) mirrors Jesus’ own self-gift and surrender and service. 

Ironically, in Acts, Luke uses the word “martyr” or “witness” to describe the folks who laid down not their lives, but their garments at the feet of the arch-persecutor of the Church, Saul of Tarsus. Clearly, there are many ways of witnessing, but the only authentic testimony is linked to Christ’s own. As the responsorial psalm today reminds the Church, we are taken up into Christ’s sacrifice by the witness of the true martyr Stephen: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”

So Stephen’s death, which we commemorate this day, sets the tone for what we rightly call the Christmas Octave because the witnesses who follow the Lord’s Nativity make his coming in the flesh an ongoing historical reality. By contrast, the office parties, the new toys, and the holiday sales will all be left as so much tinsel on the ground, together with last year’s Christmas tree. Jesus’ less than charming admonition to his disciples acknowledges the reality of his coming a human being in time, in a world which did not receive him.

His disciples will certainly provoke wrath with their testimony because witness is, by definition, never done in secret. Witnessing must become proclamation, which Stephen himself does in recounting Israel’s history in a new way, now that the Messiah has come. “A clear and unequivocal proclamation,” Pope Paul VI says, is the result of witness because “there is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, are not proclaimed.” Even in his last breath, Stephen proclaims the name, as he asks the Lord to receive his spirit.

The Feast of Stephen asks us to exchange our white baptismal garment for a red one. The witness of monastic life each day begs that the Lord receive our spirit in service and fraternal charity.

I have a sense that sincere and authentic witness as proclamation is becoming more and more urgent these days for the Church as it evangelizes the Word become flesh in this culture. Some say we are currently living in an environment of post-truth, where lies and falsehoods traffic as history. Social media can fabricate and weave and unweave stories in a tapestry which rivals Penelope’s long-suffering stitching in Ithaca as she waits for Odysseus to return.

Until Christ comes again, it is the Church’s mission to be at the ready to unravel lies, proclaim the truth, and retell history through the lens of God’s coming in the flesh: good news to those held captive by poverty and injustice, liberty to prisoners, sight to the blind. And our lives and speech will proclaim that truth again and again, just like the first martyr.

May St. Stephen, deacon and proto-martyr, make us better witnesses to the Kingdom and to the Anointed One who has so sublimely come to bring that Good News to our heart’s threshold.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christian, remember your dignity

"The grace of God has appeared, saving all."
Titus 2:11

Today our Savior is born; let us rejoice. Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness. No one is shut out from this joy; all share the same reason for rejoicing. Our Lord, victor over sin and death, finding no one free from sin, came to free us all ...

Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God's own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God's Kingdom.

-- Saint Leo the Great

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Today is born our Savior

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light; 
Upon those who lived in a land of gloom
a light has shone.
You have brought them abundant joy
and great rejoicing ...
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.
His dominion is vast
and forever peaceful.

Isaiah 9:1-2, 5-6


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Toward the Dawn

Gate of heaven,
Star of the sea,
Fix in us the gaze
You hold on the One
who bears all
and sets us free.

Br. Francis Wagner, O.S.B.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Rorate coeli

Rain down, you heavens, from above
and let the clouds pour down saving justice;
let the earth open up
and blossom with salvation,
and let justice sprout up with it.

Isaiah 45:8 (NJB)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Monastic chant and Advent antiphons

Take some time this Advent season to listen to the latest episode from the "Echoes from the Bell Tower" podcast series (above), hosted by Br. Joel Blaize and Br. Kolbe Wolniakowski. The two young monks interview Fr. Columba Kelly, Fr. Harry Hagan, and Fr. Jeremy King about the chant tradition and how chant is used during Advent. In the background are plenty of chant selections by the monks of Saint Meinrad. The entire podcast is about 20 minutes. Give your spirit a lift this Advent -- open the doors to the monastery from afar and allow the chant to waft over you. I believe you'll find it both informative and inspiring!

And as an added bonus, see my past blog post about Praying the "O" Antiphons

Advent blessings.

Br. Francis.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Christmas challenge

Bishop Robert Barron has a very interesting -- not to mention provocative -- post on his Word on Fire blog titled "Why Christmas Should Bother Everybody". Click the link with the article title to read the entire post. It's worth your time, and I encourage you to read what he has to say.

His point -- if I may -- is that Christmas is not merely some sentimental holiday centered around a cute little baby in a manger surrounded by angels, stable animals, and shepherds. And it is not simply about expressions of peace and good will toward one another (though, hopefully, it includes such behavior). Although he doesn't mention it, Christmas also is certainly not about shopping, gift-giving, decorating, and celebrating at holiday parties. Though there is nothing wrong with those things if embraced in moderation, they are really cultural, secular activities that have very little or nothing to do with the true nature of Christmas.

Bishop Barron laments that in many quarters today, Christmas has been reduced "to a level so low, so banal, that the great Christian feast is offensive to precisely no one." That, he argues, is not a good thing, because what Christmas actually celebrates is the coming of God's Word made flesh, the Christ, to call each one of us to account. Yes, he came to save sinners by his death and resurrection -- but not so we could keep on living as we always have. Christ came to call us to radical conversion of life. Recall that Jesus' very first words to his followers at the beginning of his ministry were: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17). Repentance calls for a change of heart, a turning toward God in every single aspect of our lives. We monks call it conversatio, and it is one of the vows we make. And it is not accomplished overnight; it is the work of a lifetime.

This should understandably unnerve us,  Bishop Barron argues. Our fallen human nature will resist such a call, such a challenge -- which, in a subtle way, is what we are unconsciously doing as a culture when we reduce Christmas to a banal, sentimental, inoffensive holiday. The true challenge of Christmas is to honestly examine our consciences, and to consciously embrace the call of God's Word to radically reorient every aspect of our lives toward Christ so that we are at one with him. And it is not something we can do on our own. By grace, we must rely on the gifts of prayer, Scripture, the sacraments, and the tradition and fellowship of the Church -- and then put those gifts to work in the worship of God and service of one another.

A good place to start is meditating on what it means for God, who out of fierce love for each one of us, became as small as a human infant in a feeding trough -- just as through his death and resurrection he becomes the Bread of Life for us to feed upon daily.

This is a message rarely preached these days, and one that is sorely needed in our world. As Bishop Barron points out, "Jesus is not simply a kindly prophet with a gentle message of forgiveness; he is God coming in person to assume command. He is the Lord."

This Christmas and thereafter, what will be your response? Do you accept the challenge? If so, let us rejoice together with the angels: "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests" (Luke 2:14).

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Peace and humility

I will hear what the Lord God has to say, a voice that speaks of peace,
peace for his people and his friends, and those who turn their hearts to him.
Psalm 85:8

Above all, keep peace within yourself, then you will be able to create peace among others. It is better to be peaceful than learned.

The passionate person often thinks evil of a good person and easily believes the worst; a good and peaceful person turns all things to good.

One who lives at peace suspects no one. But one who is tense and agitated by evil is troubled with all kinds of suspicions -- never at peace with oneself, and not permitting others to be at peace. He or she often speaks when it is better to be silent, and fails to say what would be truly useful. Such a one is well aware of the obligations of others but neglects his or her own.

So, be zealous first of all with yourself, and then you will be justified in expressing zeal for your neighbor. You are good at excusing and justifying your own deeds, and yet you will not listen to the excuses of others. It would be more just to accuse yourself and to excuse your brother or sister.

If you wish others to put up with you, first put up with them.

Thomas à Kempis
The Imitation of Christ

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The patience of Advent

Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and late rains. You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.
-- James 5:7-8

With the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard "delay," but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

-- 2Peter 3:8b-9