Thursday 19 February 2015

Ash Wednesday - "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return..."

On Ash Wednesday...

 Feria quarta cinerum in tempi
(The Wednesday of ashes in the time of the 40 days i.e. Lent...)

On this day Catholics the world over receive on their foreheads the sign of the cross in ash, administered by the priest, to symbolise the transience of life, the need for repentance (ash being a sign of repentence) and the hope of immortality in the life to come.
As he administers the ashes the priest says (in Latin in the traditional rites):

Meménto, homo, quia pulvis es, et in púlverem revertéris...

Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return...

 "What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh..." [Ecclesiasticus 1]
So may we well begin this Holy Season of Lent which so much reminds us of the transience of this life and, in contrast, the joys of heaven to come.

In a sense, there is both joy and sadness in Lent - sadness at death but joy at life, the life to come. Lent signifies the 40 days that our Lord spent in the desert fasting and doing penance for us and giving us an example of the way in which we can discipline ourselves to withstand the temptations of the world, grow in grace and virtue and become more truly ourselves, rather than our appetites.

This is our recollection behind the imposition of ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday. We are reminded of our mortality and that we shall return unto the dust from which man was originally made.

The words said by the priest come from Genesis 3:19 when Adam and Eve were made subject to the corruption of death and dying with the words of God ringing in their ears:

"for dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return"

 "Remember friends as you pass by,
as you are now so once was I.
As I am now so you must be.
Prepare for death and follow me."

From the Roman Office of the Dead, the Anglican divines took the words of Job and used them for the Anglican burial service. They have since thereby become famous, used in many a film setting. They are powerful words:

"MAN THAT IS BORN OF WOMAN hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower; he flieth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we be in death: of whom may we seek for succour but of thee, O Lord, which for our sins justly art displeased. Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death. Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts, shut not up thy merciful eyes to our prayers: but spare us Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful saviour, thou most worthy judge eternal, suffer us not at our last hour for any pains of death to fall from thee." [Job 11]

On Ash Wednesday, the ashes are made by the burning of the palms from the previous year's Easter.

The imposition of ashes signifies sorrow for sin, contrition, spiritual aid and the receiving of grace thereby.

The head, being the seat of pride, is then imposed with ashes in the form of a cross as the priest utters the words reminding us of our mortality.

We should wear this sign of penance as a memento mori (remembrance of death) and as a sign of witness against the concupiscence of the world.

This painting shows the return of the Blessed Virgin after the Crucifixion on Calvary.

In the distance can be seen the 3 crosses upon Calvary mount. It is a fitting theme for the penitential season of Lent - or Great Lent as the Greeks call it. Lent is a time of very moving and indeed hauntingly beautiful liturgy and chant.

Ash Wednesday begins with the reading from Joel the Prophet, Chapter 2:

“Now therefore saith the Lord: Be converted to me with all your heart, in fasting, and in weeping, and in mourning. 13 And rend your hearts, and not your garments, and turn to the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, patient and rich in mercy, and ready to repent of the evil. 14 Who knoweth but he will return, and forgive, and leave a blessing behind him, sacrifice and libation to the Lord your God? 15 Blow the trumpet in Sion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly, 16 Gather together the people, sanctify the church, assemble the ancients, gather together the little ones, and them that suck at the breasts: let the bridegroom go forth from his bed, and the bride out of her bride chamber. 17 Between the porch and the altar the priests the Lord's ministers shall weep, and shall say: Spare, O Lord, spare thy people: and give not thy inheritance to reproach, that the heathen should rule over them. Why should they say among the nations: Where is their God? 18 The Lord hath been zealous for his land, and hath spared his people. 19 And the Lord answered and said to his people: Behold I will send you corn, and wine, and oil, and you shall be filled with them: and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.”

On the First Sunday of Lent the Gospel reminds us of the precedent for Lent: our Lord's 40 days in the desert fasting.

On the Saturday in Ember week of Lent, when it was customary to have Ordinations to the clerical state, there are 6 readings including the Gospel and many beautiful chants.
Ivan Kramskoy. Christ in the Desert. 1872.

It is customary to sing the Lenten chant Attende, Domine, et miserere - "Listen, O Lord, and have mercy".

Here it is in chant:

To Thee, highest King,
Redeemer of all,
do we lift up our eyes
in weeping:
Hear, O Christ, the prayers
of your servants.

Hear us, O Lord, and have mercy, because we have sinned against Thee!

Innocent, He was seized,
not refusing to be led;
condemned by false witnesses
because of impious men;
O Christ, keep safe those
whom Thou hast redeemed!

Hear us, O Lord, and have mercy, because we have sinned against Thee!

In many communities, both religious and secular, it was also customary to have numerous additional pious devotions including chants, hymns and canticles dedicated to the instruments of the Passion, for instance the Holy Lance and the Holy Nails.

Love never dies...


Saturday 14 February 2015

St Valentine - 14 February

St Valentine's Day

Who was St Valentine?

There are two and they are both honoured on 14 February: St Valentine, martyred priest of Rome and St Valentine of Terni, martyred Bishop of Interamna (now Terni in Umbria).

The flower-crowned skull of Saint Valentine of Rome is on display in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. 

St Valentine of Terni was martyred in the persecution under Emperor Aurelian and is buried on the Via Flaminia, Rome but his relics are at the Basilica of Saint Valentine in Terni.
There is a third St Valentine whose head was once preserved in the abbey of New Minster, Winchester, England.
The Novus Ordo Missae Calendar of Blessed Paul VI no longer remembers him but the traditional Roman rite Calendar of course still does because traditionalists are romantic and the new rite is dull.

The Eastern Orthodox Church observes the feast of both saints.
David Teniers III (Flemish School). St Valentine receives a chaplet from the Blessed Virgin. 17th century.
St Valentine of Rome was a priest of Rome who was imprisoned for succouring persecuted Christians. It is said by St Bede that he was interrogated by Roman Emperor Claudius II in person.

Claudius was impressed by St Valentine and had a discussion with him, attempting to get him to convert to Roman paganism in order to save his life.

St Valentine refused and tried to convert Claudius to Christianity instead. Because of this, he was executed.

Before his execution, he is reported to have performed a miracle by healing Julia, the blind daughter of his jailer Asterius. The jailer's daughter and his forty-four member household (family members and servants) converted and were received into the Church. 

It is also said that, on the evening before Valentine was to be executed, he wrote the first "valentine" card himself, addressed to the daughter of his jailer Asterius, who was no longer blind, signing the note as "Your Valentine".
St Valentine of Terni
St Valentine of Terni is said to have performed clandestine Christian weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry.
The Roman Emperor Claudius II is said to have forbidden this practice preferring his soldiers to be unmarried believing that married men were not the best as soldiers. 

According to legend, in order to remind the soldiers of their vows, Saint Valentine is said to have cut hearts from parchment, giving them to the soldiers and others.
It is also said that St Valentine was imprisoned for presiding at the weddings of soldiers and for ministering to Christians, then under imperial ban.
Ever after, St Valentine has become associated with romantic love.
Geoffrey Chaucer, medieval English poet, praised him as a symbol of the tradition of courtly love.
Happy St Valentine's Day.
St Valentine, pray for us!
Eastern icon of St Valentine


Thursday 5 February 2015

True portrait of a Catholic monarchy or "overly roseate picture"?

Kaiser (Caesar and Emperor) Francis Joseph I of Austria-Hungary

On the Catholicism Pure and Simple Blog my Catholic Monarchy post was re-posted and comments came in.
Many misunderstood that:
(1)   The film Sissi was, as I said, a stylised and idealised view of the period (albeit fundamentally historically accurate). No-one pretends that it is anything other. It is surprising that apparently intelligent adults have to be told this.
(2)   I was not suggesting that this – or any – Catholic monarchy was flawless or perfect. How could it be? No merely human society ever is. I am surprised that anyone has to re-make this obvious point but seemingly it does need to be made.
(3)   On the other hand, the Austrian and Holy Roman Empires, no matter how humanly flawed they were, also were uniquely blessed and approved by the Church as the true successors of the first Christian Roman Empire and as having a special place in Christendom and among Christian nations. The Emperor was, in the Church’s teaching and understanding, the supreme temporal equivalent of the supreme spiritual authority, the Pope.

One academic (nom de plume “The Raven”) decided to weigh in on the contrary side and I responded.
I reproduce the correspondence below.
Blessed Kaiser (Caesar and Emperor) Charles I of Austria,
the last ruler of the Empire of Austria-Hungary

As can be seen, "The Raven", in saying that he yearns only for one King, namely Christ, rather misses the point that no-one is "yearning" for a Catholic monarchy as if it were a substitute for Christ but precisely because we, as Catholics, have a duty to try to build a just, peaceful, charitable, sustainable Christian society. That, after all, is precisely the role of the laity.
What he also fails entirely to understand is that one cannot "yearn" for Christ if one does not also desire what Christ desires and Christ shows us this through His Church. And there is no doubt but that His Church desired and favoured, in very signal and repeated ways, that the Christian Roman Empire be at the centre and heart of Roman Catholic Christendom.
How one can simply ignore or reject that and yet still claim to "yearn" for Christ, is pehaps not a question that admits a ready answer.
It seems somewhat to be saying "I know Thou, O Christ, art all powerful and all wise but I think I know better than Thee what constitutes Christian government".

What Christian can ever say that?