TSD 37: Rejoice!

Gaudete Sunday and Ember Week

This week I observed to a person who knows a prominent Catholic media figure that he—the prominent commentator—must have a thick skin, given all the online criticism he invites every time he says, well, anything. And my conversation partner said, in that trailing-off tone of voice that makes it clear that I had broached something painful, that often the skin is thinner that you’d think.

I’m going to be thinking about that for a long time. The online world is real, and the people we interact with are real—even (especially!) those who have become totems.

With that sobering thought, let’s jump in:

These Seven Days…

…in the Ordinary Form

It is the Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday). The readings are Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; James 5:7-10, and Matthew 11:2-11.

In this Gospel, the imprisoned John the Baptist asks his disciples to ask Jesus if He really is the Messiah. Christ responds:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.

The early Church fathers are very keen to point out that John himself did not doubt in Christ, but that he wanted his disciples to hear Jesus’ affirmation of His identity, so that they might follow Him rather than cling to John. St Hilary has an especially remarkable reading of this passage:

In these things which were done concerning John, there is a deep store of mystic meaning. The very condition and circumstances of a prophet are themselves a prophecy. John signifies the Law; for the Law proclaimed Christ, preaching remission of sins, and giving promise of the kingdom of heaven. Also when the Law was on the point of expiring, (having been, through the sins of the people, which hindered them from understanding what it spake of Christ, as it were shut up in bonds and in prison,) it sends men to the contemplation of the Gospel, that unbelief might see the truth of its words established by deeds.

John the Baptist gestures toward the Lamb, by Vicente Juan Masip (Joan de Joanes), c. 1560.

…in the Extraordinary Form

It is the Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday). The Epistle is Philippians 4:4-7 (a reprise from the introit—see below) and the Gospel is John 1:19-28.

There are times when the meaning of a verse seems rather straightforward, but saintly commentators go deeper in a way that, if some modern writer were to attempt it, would seem overwrought. Here, then, is Gregory the Great on John the Baptist’s statement that he is not worthy to unfasten Christ’s sandal:

We know that shoes are made out of dead animals. Our Lord then, when He came in the flesh, put on, as it were, shoes; because in His Divinity He took the flesh of our corruption, wherein we had of ourselves perished. And the latchet of the shoe, is the seal upon the mystery. John is not able to unloose the shoe’s latchet; i.e. even he cannot penetrate into the mystery of the Incarnation. So he seems to say: What wonder that He is preferred before me, Whom, being born after me, I contemplate, yet the mystery of Whose birth I comprehend not.

Is this a little much? Maybe, in the sense that these thoughts were probably not in John’s conscious mind when he spoke those words, but what a rich meditation it is nevertheless—and a reminder of how incomprehensibly rich the Scriptures are, with levels of meaning that will only be revealed to us in heaven.

This Sunday takes its name from the first word of the introit, which comes from today’s reading from the Letter to the Philippians, as well as Psalm 84 (83):

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus: Dominus enim prope est. Nihil solliciti sitis: sed in omni oratione petitiones vestrae innotescant apud Deum. // Benedixisti, Domine, terram tuam: avertisti captivitatem Jacob. Gloria Patri…

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice. Let your modesty be known to all men: for the Lord is nigh. Be nothing solicitous: but in every thing by prayer let your petitions be made known to God. // Lord, Thou hast blessed Thy land: Thous hast turned away the captivity of Jacob. Glory be to the Father…

Every week I could quote swaths of Dom Johner’s splendid chant commentary. On this day where the introit plays such a role in the identity of the Sunday celebration, permit me to indulge myself (pp. 27-28):

Some Sundays of the liturgical year sum up their character and spirit in the very first word of the Introit. Thus in today's Introit: Gaudete—"Rejoice." The altars are decked with flowers as for a feast; rose-colored vestments are used; we again hear the organ. What is the meaning of all this? What kind of joy is to be expressed today? … One will never come to a correct understanding of a liturgical text unless one views it in conjunction with the melody which proceeds from its inmost spirit. … Advent and Christmas joy, for instance, differ greatly from the exultation of Easter time. There, indeed, one may speak of full-voiced rejoicing. The Introit Laetere, with its extended intervals, already acclaims the victorious King who soon will enter in the fullness of His strength. But the Introit Gaudete with its initial seconds and minor thirds has in mind the beautiful Babe of Bethlehem who “is near at hand,” who out of pure love for us appeared in utter poverty and took on the weakness of an infant, though He is infinitely rich and mighty. The joy in this song, therefore, sinks into the heart slowly, sweetly, like gentle dew from heaven.

Saturday, December 21, is the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle. The day before is the vigil of the feast.

Unsurprisingly, the Gospel for this feast is the story that earned the apostle the epithet “doubting.” But instead let us focus on Thomas’s faithful and ecstatic exclamation: “My Lord and my God.” The St. Andrew Missal reminds us of a devotional practice that stems from this moment—a beautiful fruit of Thomas’s hesitation:

The elevation having been instituted as an act of faith in the real presence, let us say with St. Thomas: “My Lord and my God,” a practice enriched by Pius X with an indulgence of seven years and seven quarantines and a plenary indulgence once a week on the ordinary conditions.

Many of the stories of Thomas’s activities after Christ’s Ascension are, well, doubtful. There is genuine evidence, however, that Thomas ministered in India, as he had been assigned, and his tomb is in Mylapore, India. As fun as the legends of his transiting the Atlantic to South America are, they are probably (probably—we mustn’t completely rule out the extraordinary!) just legends.

Image result for thomas the apostle in art

A rather young and quite human depiction (1619-1620) of St. Thomas (very different from the lurid Caravaggio we used back in TSD 4) by Diego Velázquez.

…in both forms of the Roman Rite

It is the winter Ember Week. For those observing them, Wednesday and Saturday are days of fasting and partial abstinence (meat only at one meal) and Friday is a day of fasting and full abstinence. Strictly speaking the Ember Days only appear in the old calendar, but in the current era of crisis and penance in the Church several dioceses, including my own, have brought them back, at least as a recommendation. So we won’t sequester them in the Extraordinary Form section.

The traditional Masses for Ember Wednesday and Friday beautifully commemorate the two pre-Christmas joyful mysteries of the rosary: the Annunciation and the Visitation. In addition to “consecrating to God the various seasons in Nature,” as the St. Andrew Missal puts it, the Ember Days were also days of preparation for ordinations, which took place on Ember Saturdays. These Masses were quite long, including ordinations to the various minor orders: porters, lectors, exorcists, acolytes, subdeacons, deacons, and finally priests. I’ll plan to cover one of these Masses in more detail in a later edition—maybe springtime.

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Those Seven Days…


This feature by Emma Green in The Atlantic, about the town of St. Marys, Kansas, that has been more or less transformed into an SSPX enclave, is fascinating and fair. I recommend it even for the photography alone.

One of the funniest Catholic tweets in a long time:

Yes, though more specifically I’d say it’s the grace that is mediated by the Church and accessed through the sacramental life that makes social/economic justice possible.

I climbed it. It shakes. The view may or may not be worth the heart palpitations.

Scroll through my Twitter feed for the fun I had at the expense of pro-pornography libertarians this past week. For more on the issue, here’s a piece by Terry Schilling of the American Principles Project on practical ways to crack down on smut.

As for me…

For the Scottish Catholic Observer, I write about Christmas magic and the work of re-enchantment:

Christmas traditions, at their best, make our everyday reality of pointless meetings and calculations and entertainments seem humdrum. They point to something more.

But it’s important what exactly that ‘something more’ is. It’s not about tradition for the sake of tradition, or vaguely warm feelings, or some kind of pagan or new age version of enchantment. No, any re-enchantment of our culture must be directed toward revealing the truth of our supernatural reality, and specifically toward the person of Jesus Christ.

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