Epiphany Cantata

“Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen”  is one of my favorite Bach cantatas. The opening chorus is magnificent; one can here the camels swaying. “They shall from out Sheba all be coming, gold and incense bringing, and the Lord’s great praise then tell abroad.”

Bach’s cantata’s are such an such an extraordinary treasure. One of my confrères likes to use them an an example for this famous teaching of Lumen Gentium:

Many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of [the Church’s] visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.

Pious Jesus

The Christmas liturgy uses of Psalm 2 a lot. I suppose this is because of  verse 7: “The Lord said to me: you are my son, today I have begotten you.” But it is illuminating to read the rest of the Psalm in the light of the Christmas mystery (and visa versa). The introit of Midnight Mass uses verse 7 as the antiphon, but verse 1 as the verse: “Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?” If one reads on, one sees that the nations rage because they do not want to serve God: “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his Christ, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.'” Their opposition to God stems from an unwillingness to serve Him, to submit to Him. This is seen as irksome because it seems to be contrary to liberty. As St. Thomas argues:

Every aversion towards God has the character of an end insofar as it is desired under the notion of liberty, as according to the words of Jeremiah (2:20): For a long time you have broken the yoke, you have broken bonds, and you have said, ‘I will not serve.’ (ST IIIa Q8, A7, r.)

This is a sin against what St. Thomas calls the virtue of “religion”– rendering to God His just due. St. Augustine calls this virtue “piety,” but points out that this word has various other meanings as well:

Piety, again, or, as the Greeks say, εὐσέβεια, is commonly understood as the proper designation of the worship of God. Yet this word also is used of dutifulness to parents. The common people, too, use it of works of mercy, which, I suppose, arises from the circumstance that God enjoins the performance of such works, and declares that He is pleased with them instead of, or in preference to sacrifices. From this usage it has also come to pass that God Himself is called pious… (Civ. Dei X,1)

Now, all of these senses of piety are involved in the Christmas mystery. Mankind having rebelled against through impious pride, God looks down on them with merciful pietas and decides to send them his son. And of course His Son gives comes not in power, but in weakness, a piteous baby. God woes man, conquering man’s pride with his humility. And then of course this baby gives an example of piety toward His human parents. My favorite Christmas sermon of all time is Bl. John Henry Newman’s Omnipotence in Bonds which is all about this point:

And so, like some inanimate image of wood or stone, the All-powerful lies in the manger, or on her bosom, doubly helpless, both because His infancy is feeble, and because His bonds are strong. It is in this wise He was shown to the shepherds; thus He was worshipped by the wise men; thus He was presented in the Temple, taken up in Simeon’s arms, hurried off to Egypt by night, His tender Mother adoring the while that abject captivity to which it was her awful duty to reduce Him. So His first months passed; and though, as time went on, He grew in stature, and burst His bonds, still through a slow and tedious advance did He enter on His adolescence. And then, when for a moment He anticipated His mission and sat down among the Doctors in the Temple, He was quickly recalled by His Mother’s chiding, and went back again to her and Joseph, and, in the emphatic words of the text, was “subject unto them.” […]  I glory in [this], for I see in it the most awful antagonism to the very idea and essence of sin, whether as existing in Angels or in men. For what was the sin of Lucifer, but the resolve to be his own master? What was the sin of Adam, but impatience of subjection, and a desire to be his own god? What is the sin of all his children, but the movement, not of passion merely, not of selfishness, not of unbelief, but of pride, of the heart rising against the law of God, and set on being emancipated from its trammels? What is the sin of Antichrist, but, as St. Paul says, that of being “the Lawless One,” of “opposing or being lifted up against all that is called God, or worshipped, so that he sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself as if he were God”? If, then, the very principle of sin is insubordination, is there not a stupendous meaning in the fact, that He, the Eternal, who alone is sovereign and supreme, has given us an example in His own Person of that love of subjection, which in Him alone is simply voluntary, but in all creatures is an elementary duty? O my Brethren, let us blush at our own pride and self-will.

The Body as Deep Mud, a Donkey, and the Hinge of Salvation

nativity copy

I am plunged into deep mire, and there is no standing. Ps 69(68):2

When Christ came into the world, he said, […] a body hast thou prepared for me. Heb 10:5

Caro salutis est cardo. (Salvation hinges on the flesh). Tertulian, De Resurrectione Carnis, VIII

For to what angel did God ever say, “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee”? Heb 1:5

The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand. Is 1:3

The Psalm verse about being plunged into deep mud where there is no standing is usually applied to the Passion, but Charles De Koninck in Ego Sapientia (ch. 20) shows that it can also be applied to the Incarnation. The “deep mud” is the potentiality of matter into which the eternal Son, the pure act of Divinity, is sunk in becoming man. Fashionable theologians throw up their hands in horror at this sort of application. Not only on exegetical grounds, but above all because they are very sensitive to accusation that Christianity despises the body, and material reality. They hastily quote Tertulian’s famous pun, “Caro salutis est cardo.” (Salvation hinges on the flesh). But they seldom quote something else that Tertulian calls the flesh in the very same chapter of De Resurrectione Carnis: “huic substantiae frivolae ac sordidae” (this poor and worthless substance). Tertulian does indeed defend the body against Gnostics and Platonists – the body is neither evil nor pure privation, it is good and created by God – but neither does he have any illusions about its nobility, considered merely according to its nature. Indeed, it is the very lowliness of matter that enables the flesh to be the hinge of salvation. Continue reading

Midnight Mass 1979 and 2010

Pater Martin of The Monastic Channel has posted a video of Midnight Mass in Heiligenkreuz  from the year 1979:

As you can see, Mass was said ad orientem. The neo-gothic reredos, which was then still under the ciborium magnum, was moved against the east wall of the church in 1981. It was not until then, three years after the death of Abbot Karl Braunstorfer, who had been a father of the Second Vatican Council (and had had a very clear idea of how it ought to be implemented), that his successor started celebrating versus populum in the Abbey Church. Here is a clip of Midnight Mass from this year– you can just see the old reredos on the sacrament altar through the bars of the grill behind the high altar:

The neo-gothic reredos was a mediocre artistic achievement, and it can be argued that the painted crucifix that replaced it gives the sanctuary more focus, drawing all eyes toward the Lord. Unfortunately, this effect is contrecarré by the change to celebration versus populum.

Swaddling Clothes

Velazquez Magi

“Mary brought forth her first-born Son, and wrapped Him up in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger.” It is the custom in those southern parts to treat the new-born babe in a way strange to this age and country. The infant is swathed around with cloths much resembling the winding-sheet, the bandages and ligaments of the dead. You may recollect, my Brethren, the account of Lazarus’s revival; how that, when miracle had lifted him up out of the tomb, there he lay motionless, till his fastenings were cut off from him. “He that had been dead came forth, bound foot and hand with winding-bands; and Jesus said to them: Loose him, and let him go.” So was it with that wonder-working Lord Himself in His own infancy. He submitted to the customs, as well as to the ritual, of His nation; and, as He had lain so long in Mary’s womb, so now again He left that sacred prison, only that her loving hands might manacle and fetter Him once more, inflicting on Him the special penance which He had chosen. And so, like some inanimate image of wood or stone, the All-powerful lies in the manger, or on her bosom, doubly helpless, both because His infancy is feeble, and because His bonds are strong. (Blessed John Henry Newman, Omnipotence in Bonds)

According to Herders Neue Bibel Lexikon swaddling clothes were about 6m long!

In the first draft of the American Lectionary for Masses with Children Luke 2:7 reads: “She dressed him in baby clothes and laid him in a feedbox”. The bishops later had “feedbox” changed to “manger”. I think they should have gone after “baby clothes” instead: “feedbox” may sound silly, but it is at least an accurate rendering of φάτνῃ, whereas “baby clothes” completely misses the point: the Almighty God is bound, He who “moves the sun and other stars” cannot even move His little hands and feet.

The Incarnation and the Revelation of the Trinity


208In principio et ante saecula Deus erat Verbum: ipse natus est nobis Salvator mundi.





The birth of the Eternal Word in time reveals the mystery of His eternal birth from the Father. Creation is an image of God’s essence: in its manifold way it mirrors the perfection which He has in the absolute unity of His essence, but it does not show the most intimate depths of the Divine life; it does not show the procession of Persons. It is this most Divine of all mysteries that the Son came into the world to reveal. S. Thomas explains this in the Proemium to the Commentary on the Sentences:

. . . it belongs to him [the Son] to be the manifestation of the Father who utters [him as Word] and of the whole Trinity. And so it is said, “No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him” (Matthew 11,27), and “No one has ever seen God except the only-begotten who is in the bosom of the Father” (John 1,18). Rightly, therefore, is it said by the person of the Son, “I, wisdom, poured forth the rivers.” Those rivers I understand to be the flows of the eternal procession whereby the Son ineffably proceeds from the Father and the Holy Spirit from both. These rivers were once hidden and in some way poured together, both in the likenesses of creatures and in the enigmas of the Scriptures. . . The Son came and poured out the pent up rivers, as it were, by bringing the name of the Trinity out into the open, “Teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Whence [it also says,] “He searched the depths of the rivers and brought forth what was hidden into the light” (Job 28,11). (Translation by M. Waldstein)

Coming into the world in order to reveal His eternal coming forth from the Father, the Son enters the world in a way which is itself the most perfect temporal image of the eternal procession. De Koninck points out that it is the very lowliness of human condition that enables this imitation:

The assumption of human nature can also be accomplished in two ways: immediately and without any preliminary conditions as would be the case if God immediately formed the assumed nature; or in assuming human nature by way of birth, God would thus place Himself in dependence as it were on man and proceed into the universe by way of origination. And the being itself from which He is born becomes thereby the origin of God. Let us notice right away that this very radical communication would not in any way have been possible in the assumption of an angelic nature. God could not proceed from an angelic nature, since that nature is, on the one hand, too perfect to engender as do natural beings, and on the other hand, too imperfect to engender as does God. “Perfecta imperfecte, imperfecta perfecte.” It is thus thanks to the potentiality of matter, taking matter insofar is it is deprived of form, therefore to the privation which is the weakest reality, that the Son of God can proceed from the very inside of His creation, thus imitating in a very profound manner His generation from the eternal Father. Infixus sum in limo profundi: et non est substantia—I am thrusted in the depth of slime, where there is no point of support (Ps. LXVIII, 3). Happy imperfection of matter which merits such an informing! (Chales De Koninck, Ego Sapientia, ch. 20)