Celebrating “The Feasts” with Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina

[I'm honored to be part of the blog tour for Donald Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina's new book, "The Feasts". Thanks to the generosity of Image Books, you can register for a chance to win a free copy for yourself! Check for details at the conclusion of the review, and be sure to visit the other blogs on the tour as well.]

In their new book The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics, Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, and well-known Catholic author Mike Aquilina examine not only the major and minor feasts of the Church, but the history and theological significance of these significant days throughout the Church year.  Many Christians may never have stopped to think much about why we have these commemorations, when we pause to remember particular persons, events, or truths.  With great clarity, the authors explain the language of feast days, and how they draw us back to honoring and reflecting upon our relationship with God.  Feasts are an opportunity, above all, for expressing our gratitude.

In the early chapters of “The Feasts”, the authors take the time to provide a concise, helpful background on how and why these occasions came to be.  Jesus Himself, after all, celebrated feasts such as Passover and Yom Kippur, which are still marked today by the Jewish people.  In turn the early Christian community, as it began to emerge into a full-fledged faith, adopted its own annual religious events.  Within the first five hundred years after the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, there were already hundreds of feasts, some celebrated locally such as in the memorial of a particular saint, and others commemorated throughout the Universal Church.

Probably everyone’s favorite Christian holiday, even for many non-Christians, is the Solemnity of Christmas, which celebrates the Incarnation of Christ.  Today that meaning is often lost in the glitz and glitter of commercialism, when the point of why people give each other gifts at Christmas often seems to be lost.  Indeed, as the authors point out later in the book, the Puritans in this country attempted unsuccessfully to wipe Christmas celebrations from the calendar.

Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina do not deny the secular aspects of the holiday as currently celebrated in many parts of the world, since civilization and Christianity are tied together. They acknowledge the hard fact that for many people, Christmas can be an excuse for excessive materialism.  Many, including some Christians, would rather just take Christ out of “Christ Mass” altogether.

Yet the authors then remind us of something which we heard at Mass just this past weekend, in the reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.  St. Paul notes that the Incarnation, the coming of God in human form which we celebrate at Christmas, was not a manifestation of an overpowering being.  Rather, He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”  That gift of the Divine Self through birth is, of course, the “reason for the season”, as the expression goes.  His servitude is what we ourselves are called to follow, in imitation of Him.

Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina also remind us how very ancient the celebration of Christmas is.  Unlike what you may have heard from some quarters, i.e. that Christmas is simply an appropriation of a pagan sun festival, the authors go far back into Church history.  They point out for example that as early as the 2nd century, St. Clement of Alexandria was already arguing that the Birth of Jesus should be celebrated on December 25th, based on his survey of what the Church communities he knew of were already doing locally.  This means such commemorations were taking place long before the legalization of Christianity, let along its establishment as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

For me, the date of December 25th is less of a point of interest than understanding the historical time period of the Incarnation, something which the authors also explore in their chapter on Christmas.  Although God exists outside of time, He chose to enter into our timeline. The willingness to self-limit in such a way out of love for us is, in and of itself, something which should give us pause to consider, anytime we take the celebration of Christmas as being merely for children and merchants.

Christ was born into the world of the Roman Empire, the physical remnants of which are still with us, in ruins, archaeological sites, and museums throughout the world.  At the same time, many of the ideas and principles which laid the foundations of republics such as ours here in the United States, as well as concepts in science, engineering, literature, and so on that were the building blocks of Western civilization, were being taught, debated, and written about.  To look at a Roman column from the 1st century, and reflect on the fact that it stood at the same time Jesus was being born in the little town of Bethlehem, is to become aware of God’s Presence in our own history, not just as some sort of unintelligible entity or divine watchmaker existing independently of it.

Thus Cardinal Wuerl and Mr. Aquilina refer to Christmas as being the other magnetic pole to the Christian year, with Easter being the other.  Salvation history was not something vaguely understood, but rather marked by a most singular event: God humbling Himself into becoming Man.  Without the Resurrection at Easter, there is no hope for us, but if there is no Incarnation at Christmas, then there will be no Easter.  In coming into the world, we understand Christ not a concept, but as a Person, and one who promised to remain with us, particularly in the Eucharist.  Because of this, even when the Christmas season ends, “in a sense it never ends,” as the authors rightly make clear. For “at every Mass we experience the Word made flesh, dwelling among us.”

As human beings, we mark the passage of the hours from day to night, or the year from summer to winter, because we understand the world in this way.  “The Feasts” allows us to step back and see the broad spectrum of the days set aside by the Church, and the how and why we have these special occasions.  They remind us, when we are so often distracted by the things of this world, of the world beyond this one, the one to come, and of Him who is waiting to embrace us.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

GIVEAWAY!

For a chance to win a free copy of “The Feasts”, register with your name and email address by following this link. Only one entry per reader, please. Entries must be submitted by 11:59 pm on Thursday, September 18th. The winner will be announced on Friday, September 19th.

22730480

Really, REALLY Bad Art Restoration

If you thought that infamous art “restoration” in Spain was bad, wait until you see this one.  This time, the victim is not a small church in active use, where one wonders why no one noticed what the woman was up to for so long, but rather a large, semi-abandoned church in Russia, or rather a part of Russia which was once part of Germany.  If there is to be a prize for horrible conservation this year, surely this is to be the undisputed winner.

People often forget that Germany, like Italy, Spain, etc., didn’t always exist in the form we know it today.  In fact one can argue that “Germany” didn’t even exist until 1871, when most of the German states united into a single confederation.  As a result of subsequent wars, treaties, invasions, and so forth, some parts of Central and Eastern Europe that were once considered “Germany”, now belong to other states.

One example of this is the Baltic port city of Kalingrad, formerly known as Königsberg, which today is part of Russia.  I won’t go into all of the historical back-and-forth of who owned it and when, but suffice to say that since its founding in the Middle Ages, it was part of Germanic territory for a long time, and boasted a substantial German population.  Most of that population was forcibly removed by the Soviets after World War II, and the city was repopulated with Russians.

Following the collapse of communism and the explosive growth of the Russian Orthodox church over the past twenty years, we have seen a great deal of church restoration and new construction to meet the needs of Russian Christians.  This is of course great news for Christianity.  Unfortunately, some avoidable cultural losses are being suffered by the local populations as a result.

A report yesterday in The Art Newspaper indicates that the 14th-century church of St. Catherine of Alexandria, near Kalingrad, has now lost almost all of its medieval frescoes.  Originally a Catholic church built by the local German population, after the Reformation the building was taken over by the Protestants, who whitewashed over all of the frescoes.  The frescoes were subsequently re-discovered in the last century and revealed, but they were severely damaged during bombing in World War II.  When the Soviets took over, the church was converted into a museum and storage depo, which obviously didn’t help with what was left.

In 2010, the building was given to the Russian Orthodox church, to meet their growing need for more worship spaces.  Unfortunately, according to art experts, the remaining frescoes in St. Catherine’s are now all but gone.  They have been covered over with some cement-like covering which, unlike the whitewash slathered on centuries earlier by the Protestants, cannot be removed.  With just 2-3% of the wall art remaining, conservation is possible, but the rest is lost to history.

In the case of St. Catherine’s, we are dealing with a slightly different situation to that in Spain.  Whereas the suffering Christ in the latter church was relatively new and could be easily restored, here the paintings were so far gone as to be little more than fragments.  Thus, the wall paintings here, beautiful though they once were, never had a chance of returning to that relatively pristine state they enjoyed before the ravages of World War II.

That being said, those who understand culture and history appreciate that these things come with certain requirements.  It’s certainly understandable why the local Orthodox diocese, when it took over the building, would want to work on making it a place where religious services could be held again.  Unfortunately, they seem to have forgotten that preservation of objects from the past, while not essential to the practice of Christianity, is something that should be attempted whenever possible.

Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria (XIV Century) Rodniki (Arnau), Russia

Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria (XIV Century)
Rodniki (Arnau), Russia

This Sunday: Come Say So Long to a Great Musician

I was very saddened to learn that Neil Weston, our music director and organist at St. Stephen Martyr parish here in the Nation’s Capital, is going to be leaving us shortly.  Neil and his family are moving out to Ohio, which would obviously make the commute to St. Yuppie’s, as those of us in the know often call it, rather too difficult.  I wanted to mention his departure to encourage those of you who will be in the D.C. area this weekend to come along this Sunday, August 17th, to the 11:00 am Mass, so that you can hear why he will be sorely missed.

To get a sense of why we are going to miss him so much, you can visit my Chirbit site, which features surreptitiously made audio recordings of Neil and our choir at Mass over the past couple of years.  While the audio may not be fantastic, Neil and his singers and musicians most certainly are.  Several of the audio files manage to impart that, even in these less-than-stellar recordings.  And below this post you’ll find an embedded video, properly recorded by someone else, of Neil in action at St. Stephen’s.

When Neil first arrived at the parish, I realized immediately how very lucky we would be to have this educated, extremely gifted Englishman among us.  I was absolutely blown away by his abilities as a musician, his extraordinarily good taste, and his skills in directing our already very good choir to sound even more amazing.  He balanced out the tried-and-true with pieces both ancient and modern that were unfamiliar, but which quickly became new favorites, as I would note the name of the piece for future reference.  For a parish which is not very large, and a choir which is not very large either, the level of musicianship which I would hear on a weekly basis was simply extraordinary.

And of course what is even better, for those of us who are Catholics, is that the music has done its job beautifully.  It inspires us in moments of rejoicing, penitence, and contemplation, rather than simply being an add-on or an afterthought.  Unlike at a concert, the goal of the church musician is not to entertain, but to cause hearts and minds to be lifted up to matters Divine, as an aid to transcending the affairs of this world and focusing on the next.  In this, over the last several years, Neil has managed to bring me, and I daresay many others, into deeper prayer and a closer relationship with God, as we worship together.

In any case, Catholic or not, please do come along this Sunday at 11:00 am for Mass, and you will get to hear what I am rather poorly attempting to write in this post  St. Stephen’s is very easy to get to from anywhere in the D.C. area.  The Foggy Bottom Metro station is a 3-minute walk away, many Metrobus routes pass in front of the church itself, and there are a number of places to park in the surrounding neighborhood.  For more information on how to arrive, visit the “Directions” page on the parish website.

As of right now I haven’t heard who will be replacing Neil on the organ bench and in front of the podium up in the choir loft.  Hopefully it will be someone who appreciates the taste of the parish for the 11am on Sunday (no “City of God” or “And the Father Will Dance”, please.)  Whoever they are we’ll do our best to support them, I’m sure, but they will have very, very big organ shoes to fill, because Neil has been absolutely matchless. Godspeed and God bless, my friend.