Maximus of Turin on the Resurrection

Albrecht Dürer woodcut, cathedral museum, Mdina, Malta

Christ is risen! He has burst open the gates of hell and let the dead go free; he has renewed the earth through the members of his Church now born again in baptism, and has made it blossom afresh with men brought back to life. His Holy Spirit has unlocked the doors of heaven, which stand wide open to receive those who rise from the earth. Because of Christ’s resurrection the thief ascends to paradise, the bodies of the blessed enter the holy city, and the dead are restored to the company of the living. There is an upward movement in the whole of creation, each element raising itself to something higher. We see hell restoring its victims to the upper regions, earth sending its buried dead to heaven, and heaven presenting the new arrivals to the Lord. In one and the same movement, our Savior’s passion raises men from the depths, lifts them up form the earth, and sets them in the heights…

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A challenging examination of motherhood

Over at America, my friend Rachel Lu has authored the most thought-provoking reaction I’ve seen so far on what appears to be the downfall of Roe vs. Wade, Do we really honor motherhood?. It’s both personal and penetratingly analytical, a thought-provoking lead-up to Mother’s Day.

Roe vs. Wade was a horrific decision in every respect, an act of judicial lawlessness, the fruits of which can be seen in the lawless tactics — from slandering Supreme Court nominees to this week’s leak and violent protests — employed to defend it. Violence begets violence. There seems no line of decency or ethics that Roe’s partisans will not cross to protect it — like a lie that requires a whole string of other lies to keep it going. Listening to the President bluster about having the “right” to abortion-without-limits “because I’m just a child of God, I exist,” one cannot help but wonder, Have you no shame, man?

Rachel’s essay goes deeper than political debates and gets at more complex questions of our social and human identity. There’s plenty in it to challenge everyone’s thinking, including theologians and pro-lifers. It suggests ways in which we’ve ended up with the brutal culture of abortion that has prevailed in Roe’s wake by taking the sacrifices women make to be mothers for granted. I’ll offer just one example, Rachel’s surprising analogy between soldiers and mothers.

At first glance, it might seem strange to compare mothering to soldiering; one involves killing and the other fosters life. In many ways though, the parallels are quite strong. Historically, these are the only two demanding vocations that have been foisted on people in nearly all human societies, with little or no regard for their personal feelings or level of preparation. The demands are daunting, but failure can bring crippling consequences for individuals and society. Motherhood is also like military service in that both require recruits to put their very bodies on the line, running very real risks of disfigurement or death. These remarkable demands are justified in the simplest of terms: They are necessary. Civilization itself is at stake.

Rachel Lu

The rest is worth more than a casual read. Read the full article.

Signs of Easter

With winter now banished, one of my favorite signs of Roman spring is here — flowers sprouting from the tile rooftops. Above, my favorite, the corner of St. Ignatius Church seen from the terrace of our building, below a more modest view from my room. I’m not sure what this annual effusion of greenery means for the structural integrity of the tiles — and, I guess, I don’t really care. I find the flowers exuberant and surprising and, yes, just a tad reckless. In other words, a perfect sign of Easter.

I’ve always thought the flowers — life and beauty — breaking through the tiles a nice metaphor for the Resurrection, like the angels dressed in dazzling white among the scattered tombstones. This year they’ve also put me in mind of Peter. Peter is, after all, a slightly reckless figure, the desires of his heart a step ahead of his own moral capacities. His love for Jesus leads him to boast of his fidelity on Holy Thursday — “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” — and then to find that his steadfastness has fallen short of his aspirations. It is devastating to read of Peter’s betrayal; one can imagine how much more devastating it was to live it.

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The origins of Arbor Day

Sequoia National Park

Happy Arbor Day! I guess the date varies from year to year, depending on the optimal conditions for tree planting. It so happens that this festival of tree planting has ecclesiastical origins, as I learned in Joan Maldoof’s delightful little book, Treepedia: A Brief Compendium of Arboreal Lore. Turns out, “In 1805 a Spanish priest initiated the first modern celebration of tree planting, called the fiesta de arbol.” A bit more research revealed that the precise location of the first Arbor Day was Villanueva de la Siera, Spain. The event began with the ringing of church bells and Mass, followed by the characteristic planting of trees–then a party. Viva España! The first official American celebration of the event came on April 10, 1872 in Nebraska. Today, according to Maldoof, it is celebrated in more than forty-three countries. Happy planting!

Innsbruck revisited

I was thrilled to get the news this week that my essay “Angels in Innsbruck” was selected by Dappled Things as the winner of their 2021 Jacques Maritain Prize for Nonfiction. Dappled Things is a wonderful literary journal, the only one I know of with the explicit mission of publishing Catholic literature. They’re both online and in print; the print journal features some really beautiful artwork and is well worth the subscription.

To celebrate the occasion, I thought I’d post a few pictures from my summer in Innsbruck to go along along with the essay. First the angels in the Jesuit church…

And then a few pictures of beautiful Innsbruck.

Bernini’s beads

Can you spot the rosary?

When I reached the end of the station pilgrimage the last time around, I was struck by the details.

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.

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Holy Saturday

The Harrowing of Hell, Andrea di Bonaiuto, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Today’s reading from the Office of Readings put me in mind of the fresco of Christ’s descent into the limbo of the patriarchs in the chapter room of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Note the demon crushed under the doors of hell at Christ’s feet and the other bewildered devils on the right. (Don’t feel sorry for them.) It’s what the Middle Ages had instead of superhero movies.

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Pontius Pilate, postmodern man

I was recently reminded of a post I wrote on the old Whosoever Desires blog eleven years ago. It was prompted by controversy over Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ, but the questions it asks are perhaps still worth considering this Spy Wednesday as well…

Nathan’s post on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ last year generated a lot of discussion and ended with an intriguing question:  “Why does Pilate always get so much empathy from us?”

It would be easy, at this point, to start tossing around charges of anti-Semitism, charges which would allow us to feel a certain measure of moral superiority over those less enlightened than ourselves.  Then we could pray like the righteous Pharisee, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, anti-Semites like Mel Gibson over there” (Lk 18:10).

Throwing around such charges is a way of doing precisely the same thing that blaming the Jews for the crucifixion once did:  deflecting guilt from ourselves.  I would suggest a far more troubling answer to the question, “Why do we empathize with Pilate?”

Because Pontius Pilate is the character in the Passion who is most like us.

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Leo the Great on the Passion

Santa Croce, Florence

“True reverence for the Lord’s passion means fixing the eyes of our heart on Jesus crucified and recognizing in him our own humanity.

“The earth–our earthly nature–should tremble at the suffering of its Redeemer…. No one, however weak, is denied a share in the victory of the cross. No one is beyond the help of the prayer of Christ. His prayer brought benefit to the multitude that raged against him. How much more does it bring to those who turn to him in repentance… Everything that he did or suffered was for our salvation: he wanted his body to share the goodness of its head.

“First of all, in taking our human nature while remaining God, so that the Word became man, he left no member of the human race, the unbeliever excepted, without a share in his mercy. Who does not share a common nature with Christ if he has welcomed Christ, who took our nature, and is reborn in the Spirit through whom Christ was conceived?

“Again, who cannot recognize in Christ his own infirmities? Who would not recognize that Christ’s eating and sleeping, his sadness and his shedding of tears of love are marks of the nature of a slave? …

“The body that lay lifeless in the tomb is ours. The body that rose again on the third day is ours. The body that ascended above all the heights of heaven to the right hand of the Father’s glory is ours. If then we walk in the way of his commandments, and are not ashamed to acknowledge the price he paid for our salvation in a lowly body, we too are to rise to share his glory.”

Leo the Great, Sermo 15

Office of Readings, Thursday, 4th Week of Lent

Rome’s Cosmatesque floors

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…