31 December 2012

Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. New Year's Day

The Virgin Mary, El Greco, painted 1594-1604 (Web Gallery of Art)

Second reading from the Mass of the Solemnity, Mary Mother of God (Galatians 4:4-7, RSV Catholic Edition)

But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.


Salve, sancta Parens, eníxa puérpera Regem, qui caelum terrámque regit in saecula saeculórum.

Entrance Antiphon

Hail, Holy Mother, who gave birth to the King,
who rules heaven and earth for ever.

The recording by the Benedictines of the Abbey of Solesmes, France, is of the fuller version used in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, the 'Traditional Latin Mass', which includes the Gloria Patri and repeats the antiphon.)

The Church also observes New Year's Day as World Day of Peace, though not liturgically. the theme of Pope Benedict's message for World Day of Peace, 1 January 2013, is Blessed are the Peacemakers. Two paragraphs are of particular relevance in the context of proposed legislation in a number of countries, including the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, and of recent legislation approved in the Philippines. And our focus during the seasons of Advent and Christmas is on the Birth of a Child.

Those who insufficiently value human life and, in consequence, support among other things the liberalization of abortion, perhaps do not realize that in this way they are proposing the pursuit of a false peace. The flight from responsibility, which degrades human persons, and even more so the killing of a defenceless and innocent being, will never be able to produce happiness or peace. Indeed how could one claim to bring about peace, the integral development of peoples or even the protection of the environment without defending the life of those who are weakest, beginning with the unborn. Every offence against life, especially at its beginning, inevitably causes irreparable damage to development, peace and the environment. Neither is it just to introduce surreptitiously into legislation false rights or freedoms which, on the basis of a reductive and relativistic view of human beings and the clever use of ambiguous expressions aimed at promoting a supposed right to abortion and euthanasia, pose a threat to the fundamental right to life.

There is also a need to acknowledge and promote the natural structure of marriage as the union of a man and a woman in the face of attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different types of union; such attempts actually harm and help to destabilize marriage, obscuring its specific nature and its indispensable role in society.

I used the video above recently. It's message is not only the powerful words of the Beatitudes given us by Jesus but the dignity of those who proclaim them here. Some say, in all sincerity, that if it is known before birth that a child has a disability, especially a mental one, better that that child not be born. They are really saying that the persons in this video, whose names appear at the end, were not worthy of being born, or would have been spared a life of suffering had they been aborted. Pope Benedict is speaking to those who see things in this way.

I have a close friend whose first child, a son, was born with severe mental and physical disabilities, due to something that happened during the birth. She told me that it has taken her nearly five years to accept this reality. But there is no way that she and her husband regret the birth of their son, whom they have loved to bits from the moment of his birth, indeed from the moment they knew their first child was on his way. And their daughter, now four, loves her older brother to bits in the same way.

How often persons who are pro-life in word and in deed are taunted or dismissed as caring only for the lives of the unborn. My friends are taking care of their son, with professional help, 24/7. There are countless others caring with all their hearts for those in need.

Pope Benedict's words are a message of hope to the many who lovingly care for persons with special needs at whatever stage of life and he is telling them that they are truly peacemakers. He is also quietly challenging those who see things differently.

A Happy New Year!

30 December 2012

Juan Diego Flórez sings Cantique de Noël / O Holy Night

I don't recall hearing O Holy Night in my childhood, though I'm sure I did. In the early 1960s, as I recall, a young singer from Limerick, Ireland, named Tommy Drennan recorded it and it became a big hit in my country. I was in the seminary then.

There are many recordings of this song. Some are quite wonderful while some are not. Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez sing in the original French, by Placide Cappeau, and in the English version by John Sullivan Dwight that most of us are familiar with. You can find the words of both versions here. Adolphe Adam set Cappeau's poem to music in 1847. Cappeau had written the poem at the request of his parish priest but some years later the Church in France banned the use of the song for a while. You can read about it here. (That page gives the surname of the composer as 'Adams' but elsewhere he is 'Adam'.)

I have always liked the version of American soprano Leontyne Price best. She recorded it with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan. He was born in Salzburg, Austria, where Mozart was also born, and the most beautiful city I have ever visited. I was there for a few days in the spring of 1988. (Silent Night originated in the village of Arnsdorf, in the province of Salzburg of which the city of that name is the capital.)

The video of Juan Diego Flórez was made at a Christmas concert in Vienna in 2008 while the recording of Leontyne Price was made in 1961. I have always found it difficult to make a final choice of favourites of anything. I hope you enjoy the glorious tenor voice from Lima, Peru,  and the sublime soprano voice from Laurel, Mississippi, USA.

29 December 2012

'Your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.' Sunday Reflections, The Holy Family, Year C

Renante and Christine Alejo-Uy with Kiefer Thomas, their first born. They are active members of Couples for Christ in Bacolod City.
The cover of Misyon, the magazine of the Columbans in the Philippines, November-December 2007.

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Gospel Luke 2:41-52 (Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition)

Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom; and when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the company they went a day's journey, and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances; and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously." And he said to them, "How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.

Christ among the Doctors, Leonaert Bramer, painted 1640-45 (Web Gallery of Art)

Today is the Feast of The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. On 19 March the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Today's gospel refers to Joseph and Mary as the parents of Jesus. Mary says reproachfully to her Son, Your father and I have been looking for you anxiously. To the puzzlement of both Mary and Joseph, Jesus replies, Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?

St Matthew shows clearly the role of St Joseph in the life of Jesus: An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, 'Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1: 20-21).

Joseph's first responsibility was to be the husband of Mary and, as such, was to name her Son, thereby becoming his legal father. In some paintings of the Nativity St Joseph is a background figure, or partly hidden in the dark, but clearly protective of Jesus and Mary, and in an attitude of worship towards the Infant.

The Nativity, El Greco, painted 1603-05 (Web Gallery of Art)

But in depictions of the Flight into Egypt, of which there are many, we often find St Joseph leading the way, as in this woodcarving. 

The Flight into Egypt, Unknown Flemish Master, c. 1515 (Web Gallery of Art)

The Greek-born Doménikos Theotokópoulos, (1541 – 7 April 1614) who settled in Toledo, Spain, as a young man where he became known as 'El Greco', 'The Greek', captures the role of St Joseph as a protective parent.

As a child I saw my parents as my father and mother. Now I remember them not only as that but as a married couple. And sometimes I think that the Church over-emphasises the importance of the family at the expense of marriage, which is the foundation of the family. St Joseph's primary responsibility was to be the husband of Mary and, as such, to be the one known as the father of Jesus, even though Mary's Son wasn't his. 

And in today's gospel Mary painfully discovers that, in a sense, he isn't hers either, as he says, Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house? At the beginning of his adolescence Jesus was, in his humanity, coming in touch with his heavenly Father's will. The mystery of Jesus being both God and Man is something we cannot fathom. St Paul says that Jesus though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (Philippians 2:6).

But this incident shows us that Mary and Joseph as parents suffered the same pain that every parent of an adolescent goes through. They were learning that they did not 'own' Jesus, that they would have to let him go at some stage.

I recall some incidents involving my father. One was when I was no more that three, possibly only two. Like St Joseph, he was a carpenter and made a little saddle that he put on the crossbar of his bicycle, on which he went to work every morning. I recall him taking me for a 'spin', probably on a Saturday afternoon, in the area where we lived at the time, I sitting joyfully on the little wooden saddle he had made. It's like a photo in my mind that captures a moment of delight between father and son.

Then when I was around ten he taught me how to ride a bicycle. I borrowed that of a cousin a little older than me. Dad held the back of the saddle tightly so that I wouldn't lose balance and stayed with me patiently. Then at a certain point I realised that he wasn't holding it anymore and that I was moving forward without falling. He knew when to let go. 

He taught me how to swim around that same time, with the same approach. He gave me a sense of security - but didn't cling on when I didn't need that kind of security anymore.

My parents taught me what trust was by trusting me. In Ireland the symbol of adulthood was - and maybe still is, I don't know - the key to the house. I was given the key when I was only 13. None of my friends had that privilege. Even on one occasion three years later when I came home very late on my bicycle from a dance and they were waiting at the door sick with worry - nobody on our street had a telephone and mobile phones probably weren't even in the imaginations of science-fiction writers - all I got was a well-deserved scolding. They still trusted me to use my key responsibly.

I saw too that on occasions when there might be a combination of heat and coldness in their relationship for a few days, they still took care of each other. After attending a very early Mass Dad would come home, prepare my mother's breakfast and bring it to her in bed before heading off for work. And when he came home in the evening his dinner would be always ready. I remember his amusement on the only occasion in their married life when my mother didn't have it ready. She had been delayed by something unexpected and was really embarrassed. Dad just laughed.

In Worldwide Marriage Encounter one of the things we emphasise is that Love is a Decision. It's not a feeling, though feelings are related to it, of course. I saw that in my parents' lives and I also saw that they made important decisions together. One example was when I was 13. My father was asked to take on a job for six months in a town in the south of Ireland. This meant that he would be able to come home only one weekend per month. I know that my parents discussed this thoroughly and also spoke to us, their two sons, about it, before deciding that Dad should take on the job.

This cartoon, which I found on a friend's Facebook, captures in a humorous way what Love is a Decision means. (I think that the cartoon has been been to many places in cyberspace.)

As I look back now, I see clearly that my parents were husband and wife first, and father and mother second. That did not mean that they saw parenthood as being of lesser importance but that they saw it as being a consequence of being married. I think they had their priorities right.

The Feast of the Holy Family reminds us that marriage is the root of the family. Do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus (Matthew 1:20-21).


The liturgical Season of Christmas continues until the Feast of The Baptism of the Lord on Sunday 13 January. The Huron Carol was written by St Jean de Brébeuf SJ in 1623 and set to a French folk tune. Jesse Edgar Middleton translated it into English in 1926. St Jean, a Frenchman, was martyred in Canada on 16 March 1649

Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled
That mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim and wondering hunters heard the hymn,
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

Within a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found;
A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped his beauty round
But as the hunter braves drew nigh the angel song rang loud and high
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

O children of the forest free, O seed of Manitou
The holy Child of earth and heaven is born today for you.
Come kneel before the radiant boy who brings you beauty peace and joy.
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

Statue of St Jean de Brébeuf, Midland, Ontario, Canada

27 December 2012

'Rachel weeping for her children'. The Holy Innocents, 28 December

The Flight into Egypt, Adam Elsheimer, c.1605 (Web Gallery of Art)

Gospel. Matthew 2:13-18 (Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition)

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, "Out of Egypt have I called my son." Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more."

The only manuscript copy to have survived into recent times was burnt in 1875. Our knowledge of the lyrics is therefore based on two very poor quality transcriptions from the early nineteenth century, and there is considerable doubt about many of the words. Some of the transcribed words are difficult to make sense of: for example, in the last verse "And ever morne and may For thi parting Neither say nor singe" is not clear. Various modern editors have made different attempts to make sense of the words, so such variations may be found as "ever mourn and say", "every morn and day", "ever mourn and sigh". The following is one attempted reconstruction. [These are the lyrics used in the video above.]
Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

I took part in a Rachel's Vineyard retreat in Ireland more than a year ago. I was a participant, not a member of the team. Those leading the retreat and helping in various ways and those making it, apart from the team priest and myself, had all been directly affected by abortion, as mothers and fathers of children they would never see.  

There was a quiet sense of joy and moments of humour during the weekend. There was deep respect for each one present and no pressure on anyone to share more than he or she wanted to.

Here in the Philippines, where abortion is illegal, Pro-Life Philippines estimates that there may be as many as 750,000 induced abortions per year. The population is estimated to be around 90 million. The Guttmacher Institute in the USA, which could not be described as being 'pro-life' but whose research is, I think, reliable, estimates that in 2000 there were anywhere between 394,500 and 552,300 induced abortions.

Individuals in the Philippines rarely speak about their experience of abortion. There is an urgent need for ministries such as Rachel's Vineyard. 

How to start?

Massacre of the Innocents, Givoanni Angelo del Maino, c. 1520 

25 December 2012

A Midnight Mass during the Great War in 1916

Adoration of the Shepherds, El Greco, painted 1596-1600 (Web Gallery of Art)

Fr William Doyle SJ (3 March 1873 - 16 August 1917)

Remembering Fr William Doyle SJ is an inspiring blog worth exploring. My kindergarten principal in Stanhope St, Dublin, Sr Margaret Stanislaus, was for ever talking to us about two priests, Fr Damien de Veuster SsCc, a Belgian, now St Damien of Molokai, and Fr Willie Doyle SJ, a Dubliner who died in Belgium during the Great War (1914-1918).

The posts in the blog usually feature an extract from writings of Father Doyle, very often letters he wrote from the trenches, or from Father William Doyle SJ by Professor Alfred O'Rahilly, who later became a priest.

Here are extracts from yesterday's post describing Father Willie's last Christmas on earth.

Christmas itself Fr. Doyle had the good luck of spending in billets. He got permission from General Hickie to have Midnight Mass for his men in the Convent. The chapel was a fine large one, as in pre-war times over three hundred boarders and orphans were resident in the Convent; and by opening folding-doors the refectory was added to the chapel and thus doubled the available room. An hour before Mass every inch of space was filled, even inside the altar rails and in the corridor, while numbers had to remain in the open. Word had in fact gone round about the Mass, and men from other battalions came to hear it, some having walked several miles from another village. Before the Mass there was strenuous Confession-work. “We were kept hard at work hearing confessions all the evening till nine o’clock” writes Fr. Doyle, “the sort of Confessions you would like, the real serious business, no nonsense and no trimmings. As I was leaving the village church, a big soldier stopped me to know, like our Gardiner Street friend, ‘if the Fathers would be sittin’ any more that night.’  He was soon polished off, poor chap, and then insisted on escorting me home. He was one of my old boys, and having had a couple of glasses of beer — ‘It wouldn’t scratch the back of your throat, Father, that French stuff’ — was in the mood to be complimentary . . . 

I reached the Convent a bit tired, intending to have a rest before Mass, but found a string of the boys awaiting my arrival, determined that they at least would not be left out in the cold. I was kept hard at it hearing Confessions till the stroke of twelve and seldom had a more fruitful or consoling couple of hours’ work, the love of the little Babe of Bethlehem softening hearts which all the terrors of war had failed to touch.”

Father Doyle described his experience:

“I sang the Mass, the girls’ choir doing the needful. One of the Tommies, from Dolphin’s Barn, sang the Adeste beautifully with just a touch of the sweet Dublin accent to remind us of home, sweet home, the whole congregation joining in the chorus. It was a curious contrast: the chapel packed with men and officers, almost strangely quiet and reverent (the nuns were particularly struck by this), praying and singing most devoutly, while the big tears ran down many a rough cheek: outside the cannon boomed and the machine-guns spat out a hail of lead: peace and good will — hatred and bloodshed!
“It was a Midnight Mass none of us will ever forget. A good 500 men came to Holy Communion, so that I was more than rewarded for my work.”
What comes through is Father Willie's great zeal, especially for the sacrament of confession, and his love for the men he served, with a strong flavour of a sense of humour that shows an understanding of human nature, especially in the midst of danger.
Yesterday I featured the Christmas Truce along parts of the Western Front in 1914. I found this extract from a French movie inspired by that in which a German soldier walks across No Man's Land singing Adeste Fideles. I can't remember not knowing this great Christmas hymn and have always preferred the original Latin. Father Willie was clearly touched by hearing the Adeste sung by a 'Tommy' (the generic nickname for the ordinary soldier in the British army) with just the touch of the sweet Dublin accent. (Not too many, including Dubliners themselves, of which I'm proudly one, would describe what we call the real Dublin accent as 'sweet'! Father Willie himself, being from a middle-class family, would have had a somewhat different Dublin accent). Perhaps Father Willie was unwittingly expressing his loneliness being far away from home and caught up in the horror of war.  
The subtitles in this video are Korean. That, and the fact that a Mexican singer, Rolando Villazón, now a French citizen, plays a German soldier singing a Christmas hymn in Latin, one known to soldiers on both sides of that awful war, symbolises the truth in the last line of the song Christmas in the Trenches, 'And on each end of the rifle we're the same'.
(With Father Willie's gentle sense of understanding of the Irish soldier with the couple of glasses of beer, that French stuff that wouldn't scratch the back of your throat, we can forgive the singer's mispronunciation of 'adoremus', which he pronounces 'adoramus'!)

I'm not sure if Father Willie was familiar with this traditional carol in Irish Gaelic, Don Oíche Úd i mBeithil, To That Night in Bethlehen.

24 December 2012

'On earth peace among men . . .' Christmas in the Trenches 1914

The Nativity, at Night, Geertgen to Sint Jans, painted c.1484-90 (Web Gallery of Art)

A reflection on this painting by Eileen Kane in The Sacred Heart Messenger.

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

There are four different Masses for the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas):

At the Vigil Mass; This Mass is used on the evening of 24 December, either before or after First Vespers (Evening Prayer I) of the Nativity.

At the Mass during the Night; in Latin 'Ad Missam in nocte'. The term 'Midnight Mass' is no longer used.

At the Mass at Dawn.

At the Mass during the Day

It is worth noting that 'Christmas' comes from the Old English Crīstesmæsse, meaning 'Christ's Mass'.

Gospel for the Mass during the Night. Luke 2:1-14 (Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition)

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!" 

Christmas in the Trenches by John McCutcheon

A ballad about the Christmas Truce of 1914 during the Great War.

My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany to here
I fought for King and country I love dear.
'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung.
Our families back in England were toasting us that day,
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound.
Says I, 'Now listen up, me boys!' each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
'He's singing bloody well, you know!' my partner says to me.
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony.
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.

As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent
'God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen' struck up some lads from Kent
The next they sang was 'Stille Nacht'. 'Tis "Silent Night",' says I
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.
'There's someone coming toward us!' the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one long figure trudging from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright.
As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night.

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's Land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand.
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave 'em hell.
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home,
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own.
Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin
This curious and unlikely band of men

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more.
With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war.
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wonderous night
'Whose family have I fixed within my sights?'
'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter hung;
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung.
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell;
Each Christmas come since World War I, I've learned its lessons well.
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we're the same.

'"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" struck up some lads from Kent'

'The next they sang was "Stille Nacht". "'Tis 'Silent Night'," says I
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.'

The vast majority of the soldiers who fought and died in the Great War (1914-18) were only a few years older than the boys in the Thomanerchor above, many of them still in their teens. 'Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school'.

Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.

22 December 2012

'The babe in my womb leaped for joy.' Sunday Reflections, Fourth Sunday of Advent Year C

French Miniaturist, 1405-08 (Web Gallery of Art)

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Gospel Luke 1:39-45 (Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition) 

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord." 

The Visitation, El Greco, 1610-13 (Web Gallery of Art)

About five years ago I celebrated Mass on the Feast of the Visitation in a home for girls where most come from a background of abuse. One girl of 16, whom I'll call 'Gloria', was pregnant. She was from another part of the Philippines and had been working in a restaurant and said that one of her co-workers was responsible. I wasn't quite sure to what extent the cause of the pregnancy had been consensual or whether the young man had taken advantage of the young woman. Perhaps there was an element of both.

Gloria was very angry and would not accept the baby she was carrying who was by this time around six months, as I recall. I invited her at the end of the Mass to come forward for a blessing for herself and her child. She agreed. I placed my hand gently on her stomach, as Elizabeth is about to do in the painting on parchment from the Book of Hours at the top and as both she and Mary do in the painting below, while I prayed. 

The Visitation, Rogier van der Weyden, c.1445 (Web Gallery of Art)

Gloria told me afterwards that she could feel the baby moving as I blessed them both - and she had a smile on her face. She was able to go home to her own place some time later where she gave birth.

The French miniaturist and Rogier van der Weyden both capture the sacredness of the lives of the unborn Jesus and John the Baptist. El Greco captures the swirl of a dance of life, the flowing blue robes suggesting the joy of the two pregnant mothers, Mary and Elizabeth.

Today's gospel has particular relevance in the context of ongoing public debates in both the Philippines and the Republic of Ireland.

Del Verbo Divino
San Juan de la Cruz

Del Verbo divino
la Virgen preñada
viene de camino:
¡ si les dais posada !

Concerning the Divine Word
St John of the Cross

With the divinest Word, the Virgin
Made pregnant, down the road
Comes walking, if you'll grant her
A room in your abode. 

Translation by Roy Campbell

Posada is a Spanish word meaning 'lodging' or 'accommodation'. In some Spanish-speaking countries, especially Mexico, Las Posadas is a nine-day preparation for Christmas.