Today is unofficially known as “Spy Wednesday” on the Church calendar because the Gospel reading recounts the story of Judas’s betrayal. I spent this Lent doing the 30-day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, and, for me, the most moving part of the retreat was contemplating the Lord’s Passion, in which, through the liturgy, we participate during Holy Week.
There is much to say about the retreat and much to say about Holy Week–but having been away for over a month, I also have a fair bit of catching up to do. So for now, I’ll share just one thought.
Until we reach Easter Sunday, this week is incredibly dark. Judas is present at the Last Supper and his impending betrayal colors everything else. Even before the Lord’s arrest, Jesus suffers because of his disciple’s mendacity. Peter’s courage and good intentions fail. The physical torture–scourging, beating, the nails, exposure and slow suffocation on the cross–is inhuman, enough to turn one’s stomach just thinking about it. And then, the cravenness of Pilate, the calculated cruelty of Jerusalem’s religious leaders, the callous and fickle crowd. What is most sobering of all is the realization that there is some of Judas and Pilate and Peter in each one of us. The Lord suffers for our sins.
Since St. Francis of Assisi introduced the idea 800 years ago, Italy has been the land of Nativity scenes. And there is no more prominent location for a Nativity scene in the world than St. Peter’s Square. The scene is different every year and–along with the Christmas tree in Piazza Venezia–is usually subject to intense comment and critique from Romans and visitors alike. There’ve been a few doozies in my years here, but this year’s scene from Friuli Venezia Giulia does not seem to have aroused great protests.
Here’s a peak at the scene, still waiting for the child who makes all things complete.
Christmas blessings to one and all!
“In the fullness of time, chosen in the unfathomable depths of God’s wisdom, the Son of God took for himself our common humanity in order to reconcile it with its creator.” (Pope St. Leo the Great)
One of the reasons I find the season of Advent so compelling is its central symbol of light growing in the darkness, as simple as it is powerful. The fifth of the O antiphons always strikes me as particularly poignant:
O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
Mid-December also coincides with a slight lull in the crush of tourists here; between the Immaculate Conception and Christmas the streets are a tad calmer and one can get out and enjoy the decorations. In the northern hemisphere it is one of the darkest times of the year, but that only makes the lights all the more delightful.
In Italy the pre-Christmas countdown begins in earnest after the Immaculate Conception on December 8. One of the country’s less-known charms is that Holy Days of Obligation are national holidays, so the Immaculate Conception means a day off, and if, like this year, it falls on a Thursday, this means a long-weekend for many, rather like Thanksgiving.
Advent is one of my favorite seasons, and, as the lights go up and manger scenes come out, I find it one of Italy’s most charming as well. (Christmas lights, fireworks, and outdoor summer operas are among the ways Italians take delight in being delightful.) Unfortunately, this year I was not among those to get last Friday off and the end of the semester is keeping me at my desk–so for this Gaudete Sunday , I rummaged through pictures of Advent trips past. Here’s a handful from Orvieto and Viterbo, the sort of small towns that are charming any time, but especially decked out for the season.
Happy Gaudete Sunday!
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.
Last month I had an interesting discussion with Jesuit scholastic David Inczauskis about the sacraments–what they are, why we have them, how they and the theology surrounding them developed through time, what are the challenges for sacramental theology today. David produces an in-depth podcast on liberation theology, so my general introduction to sacramental theology was the lead-in to some of his reflections on liberation theology and the sacraments, which are also included in the podcast. Here’s the Apple version of the episode:
I was very pleased to get the new issue of Worship, where I have an article that brings together some thoughts from the early days of the COVID lockdown with research related to my work on baptism of desire. It provides some of the intellectual background for my thoughts on the limits of e-worship in America.
The article “Spiritual Communion or Desire for Communion?: Sacraments and Their Substitutes in the Time of COVID-19” appears in the April 2022 issue of Worship.
Here’s the abstract:
This article critiques the concept of “spiritual communion” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. It traces the idea’s roots to the earlier doctrine of baptism of desire and explores how the scholastic distinction between the sacramentum and res sacramenti supports it. However, it argues that such a distinction runs the risk of reductivism, discounting the embodied and communal dimension of the celebration of the sacraments. It suggests that understanding the Eucharist to represent a single irreducible good which produces multiple secondary goods provides a better way to understand the sacrament. Such a framework is able to account for what is positive in such practices as spiritual communion or televised liturgies while avoiding the danger of presenting them as replacements for the sacrament itself.
For the sacramental theologian such as myself, there’s a deep lesson in the details of the journey. The Son of God’s Incarnation meant entering fully into the reality of human life, with all its diverse moments of suffering and disappointment, of hope and joy, of sometimes just getting by. The Passion narrative is the most vividly detailed part of the Gospels, and the Resurrection stories too, though reflecting the discombobulation of that utterly unprecedented event, also retain the sort of vivid details that stick out in one’s mind even when the world has just gone outside-in. Mary thinks Jesus is the gardener. Jesus eats a bit of fish. The sacraments depend on the details of the Lord’s life, too, on what he ate at his last meal.
Italy is such living sculpture that one could easily fill a coffee table book with pictures of otherwise mundane objects that, here, have have taken on artistic flare. You could fill a profitable day just searching out interesting door knockers or doorways, drinking fountains or the weeds that sprout from rooftop tiles. We owe much of this picturesqueness to the medieval spirit that allowed craftsmanship and creativity to flourish on a human scale–and which has become less common in our age of planned obsolescence and Made in China.
Making the station church pilgrimage this year, I’ve been looking at the ground. I wrote before of the marvelous Cosmatesque floors in so many of Rome’s churches. This style is named after the Cosmati family, the medieval craftsmen who made use of Rome’s overflow of broken marble to turn what would otherwise have been refuse into charming and sometimes Escher-esque designs. It’s especially appropriate that the Cosmati’s work paves Christian churches, where sins are absolved and, picking up the fragments left by our mistakes, we are reminded that, with the help of grace, we can still manage something beautiful.
So here’s a slideshow of a handful of Rome’s graceful floors…
This week we passed Lent’s midpoint, which always seems the most grueling part of the journey, the part where you’re most tempted to ask, “Are we there yet?” The excitement of starting something new has worn off, and the end still seems distant. It’s the part of Lent where hitting the snooze button one more time comes oh-so-easily.
And here the Church again gives us a little boost with Laetare Sunday and the simple joy that comes from listening to your parish priest insist that his vestment is not pink, not mauve, not pepto-bismal, but rose, darn it, it’s rose.
My own personal mid-Lent boost came this week from the remarkable apse mosaics in the week’s station churches. I’ve always found mosaics mesmerizing, the fragments that make up a greater whole, the way the light glistens off each piece. The mosaics in Rome’s station churches are particularly precious because they are so old. Santa Pudenziana’s dates from the 5th century, Ss. Cosma e Damiano’s from the 6th.
There are a lot of churches in Rome. I’ve heard 900-something, but I’m not really sure. There are eight or nine chapels in the building I live in, but I might be forgetting some. Needless to say, it seems a little too late for a master plan to ensure efficiency.
The closest Rome ever came to an efficient program of church construction was probably right at the beginning, with the tituli, which were really just the houses of prominent Christians where the faithful gathered to worship, sometimes in secret. Titulus refers to the name of the owner, usually written on a plaque by the door. These centers weren’t laid out in any logical plan, but depended on whoever had a big enough living room (well, courtyard) to accommodate the whole proto-parish. When Christianity came out into the open after the Edict of Milan, the city’s faithful erected church buildings on the site of the tituli, which often enough coincided with sites of martyrdom. A few of the station churches are also built on the site of an old diaconia, basically an early Christian charitable distribution center.