Joy to the World: Scott Hahn and the Substance of Christmas

[I’m honored to be part of the blog tour for Dr. Scott Hahn’s latest offering, “Joy to the World: How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (And Still Does)”, published by Image Books. Be sure to check out the other reviewers’ thoughts as well.]

In the first chapter of Joy to the World, well-known Catholic apologist and scholar Dr. Scott Hahn presents us with a scene of family life which many of us will find familiar. Tired and worn out as a result of being dragged from church to church, Hahn’s daughter has had just about enough for her 12-year-old sense of patience. Yet when she is given the chance to be of service to someone else, in a way which she did not expect, and which involves a precious baby, everything changes. Of course, in the book, this is taking place not in some American suburb, but in Bethlehem; just as the light clicks on for those of us who are familiar with the Nativity story, so too does the light click on for Dr. Hahn as he and his daughter pause in their Holy Land pilgrimage.

With that very effective hook, Dr. Hahn takes the reader on a journey through thousands of years of salvation history. In “Joy to the World” we meet many characters, whether they are ancient Hebrew Patriarch, Judean client-king, or mysterious Persian magus. Here, Hahn successfully manages to balance between penning a popular reflection on the mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus, and a scholarly work with concepts and references which reveal connections hitherto unknown to those outside of serious Biblical studies.

Take for example a section in the book in which Dr. Hahn points out three possible interpretations as to why St. Joseph, as described in St. Matthew’s Gospel, decided to quietly divorce the Virgin Mary. There is the theory which I suspect many of us probably adhere to, which is that being a just man, he didn’t want to see his young bethrothed stoned to death, and so acted out of pity. Another is that he was so perplexed by the situation given what he knew of Mary, that he didn’t want to be a part of it. And then there is the theory that when St. Joseph realized Whose Child the Virgin Mary would be bearing, he did not consider himself worthy to take on the role of caring for the Messiah.  The reader can decide for himself which theory he believes, but explorations like this fill “Joy to the World” and make it an extremely interesting survey of some of the fascinating areas which scholars delve into in trying to understand the Nativity.

Dr. Hahn similarly takes an entire chapter to lay out the political situation in Judea at the time of the birth of Christ. As one might expect, he explains how King Herod the Great came to the throne, and the horrors that the monarch got up to in order to preserve his place. Yet Hahn also weaves in the threads of prophecy regarding Herod’s lineage, as well as other, false Messiahs that popped up before and after Jesus, and the sense even in Rome at the time that something was about to happen to the ancient world, changing it forever.

By no means is this relatively short book an attempt to completely catalogue all of Biblical scholarship concerning the Birth of Jesus.  Rather, it is a companion for meditation, and a resource for further study, thanks to the selection of endnote materials which give the reader the opportunity to further explore some of the ideas covered by Dr. Hahn in the book.  As such, I can see it making a wonderful gift for someone who is interested in getting deeper into the study of their faith, or even for someone who isn’t quite sure what the Catholic Church teaches regarding the nature and origin of Jesus.

And indeed the idea of “family” is something which Dr. Hahn returns to again and again, not only exploring the dynamics of the relationships between Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, but also using this model as a way to, by extension, explore the nature of our relationship with God.  As His adopted sons and daughters, we are part of His family as well, if we choose to accept his invitation.

For me the takeaway from this book is something more than simply interesting factoids about the Birth of Jesus, and more in the realm of  “substance”. The familiar persons from the Nativity can often seem to be little more than bits of chalkware plaster that we take out of a box from the cupboard and unwrap from their newspaper shrouds, where they lay hidden for most of the year. They present various poses to us, but at times they can seem to be little more than figures in a pantomime, if we do not consider the risks they took, and the changes they underwent, often in defiance of the conventions of their times, to bear witness to the Gospel.

What Dr. Hahn gives us are not pretty, glossy cardboard cutouts, but real individuals, insofar as we can know what we do about them. The shepherds smell; they are not welcome in their community, thanks to the dirty jobs they have to do. The magi are not simply fortune tellers or astrologers, they are actually feared by the Roman Empire because of the huge societal influence they hold over the people of the Near East. Even the angels are not just ethereal figures with tresses of Breck-girl hair, they are powerful beings who help shape the course of human history as they do God’s Will.

There are many books available for spiritual reading on the subject of the Birth of Christ. Adding this one to your list this Advent and Christmas will bring a renewed sense of the truly astonishing premise of the Incarnation: that God would humble himself to be born as a human being, into an existing human family, at a particular time and place in history. No wonder, then, that ever since that birth, we have reckoned our days from it.

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Totus Tuus: Marian Suffering and Pope St. John Paul II

Today for the first time in the liturgical calendar, the Church celebrates the feast of Pope St. John Paul II.  For many of us as we were growing up, JPII – as we affectionately call him – was the only pope we had ever known, thanks to his long pontificate from 1978 until 2005.  There is so much that one could reflect on about the man today, but I want to focus on just one aspect of his life, thanks to a work of art I stumbled upon yesterday.

The image of JPII reproduced below is part of a huge canvas about 40 feet long and 30 feet wide.  It depicts the Coronation of the Virgin Mary following her arrival in Heaven, and was painted by contemporary Spanish artist Raúl Berzosa Fernández (born 1979).  The work covers the ceiling of the Oratory of Santa Maria Reina (Mary, Queen of Heaven) of the Hermandad de las Penas (Brotherhood of the Sorrows) in the Andalusian city of Málaga.  The painting took 6 years to completeand was just finished and dedicated a month ago.

The Brotherhood is one of the religious associations which participate in the famous Holy Week processions in Spain.  Each of these groups typically has their own church or chapel where they preserve the elaborate floats and statues used in these processions, and where members gather throughout the year for prayer, services, and to encourage the local community in their faith.  This particular group cares for two historic images used during Holy Week: one a highly-detailed sculpture of Christ on the Cross, and the other of the sorrowful Virgin Mary, weeping over the pains being suffered by her Divine Son.

Not only is Sr. Berzosa Fernández’ work magnificent, it demonstrates that the study of classical art is not yet dead, thank goodness.  Yet it also gives us an image of the late Pontiff in a wider theological context, not simply as a portrait.  As one of the figures in a piece celebrating the Blessed Mother, in the chapel of a group dedicated to meditating on the suffering which she and Her Son endured, the presence of St. John Paul II in this painting is more than simply a pious inclusion. It exemplifies the Pope’s deep understanding as a result of his own, personal suffering of how Mary’s example of suffering along with Her Son can lead us to better follow Him.

St. John Paul II’s devotion to Our Lady, particularly at her shrine of Czestochowa in Poland, and at Fátima in Portugal following the attempt on his life, is well known, of course.  His motto on his Papal coat of arms was the same which he had as Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, “Totus Tuus” – “All Yours” – referring to the opening consecration to the Virgin Mary of St. Louis de Montfort. The coat of arms also featured an initial “M” beneath the cross, recalling the presence of the Blessed Virgin beneath the cross at the Crucifixion, witnessing the suffering of her Son and sharing in His sorrows.  And sorrow was something JPII understood all too well, under the Nazis, later under the Communists, and still later in surviving an assassination attempt and suffering the ravages of Parkinson’s disease.

Yet for JPII, while sorrow and suffering was a reality not to be shied away from, he recognized that these things were ways to bring us closer to Christ, as indeed the Mother of Christ herself understood by remaining close to her Son.  In his 1987 encyclical “Redemptoris Mater”, a complex theological document which has been studied and commented on by many far more educated than I, St. John Paul II reflected on the relationship of Mary to Christ and His Church.  I won’t even attempt to unpack it in a blog post.  Instead, I wanted to highlight one of my favorite passages in the text, which is relevant for our consideration here.

Toward the end of the encyclical, when the late pope points out Mary’s role as an example and as an intercessor in helping us to struggle against evil and do good, to carry on even though suffering, and to pick ourselves up and rise after we have fallen, he reflects on the times in which we live, when we can be so easily deluded into thinking everything is fine and dandy in the world:

Mankind has made wonderful discoveries and achieved extraordinary results in the fields of science and technology. It has made great advances along the path of progress and civilization, and in recent times one could say that it has succeeded in speeding up the pace of history. But the fundamental transformation, the one which can be called “original,” constantly accompanies man’s journey, and through all the events of history accompanies each and every individual. It is the transformation from “falling” to “rising,” from death to life. It is also a constant challenge to people’s consciences, a challenge to man’s whole historical awareness: the challenge to follow the path of “not falling” in ways that are ever old and ever new, and of “rising again” if a fall has occurred.

Just as the painting which brought about today’s post was something that took many years to complete, so too, our own lives are a constant work in progress, not something which is ever going to be perfected in this life.  Christ taught us this, His Mother understood it, and St. John Paul II certainly tried to live it and pass that reminder along to us.  As we remember him today, let us also remember that picking up our cross and soldiering on, however difficult it may be, is what all Christians are called to do.

Detail of "The Coronation of the Virgin" by Raúl Berzosa Fernández (2008-2014) Oratory of Santa Maria Reina, Malaga

Detail of “The Coronation of the Virgin” by Raúl Berzosa Fernández (2008-2014)
Oratory of Santa Maria Reina, Málaga

“In Those Days, Caesar Augustus…”

You’re probably very familiar with St. Luke’s account of the Birth of Jesus in the Bible.  If you’re Catholic, you hear those words read every year at Midnight Mass, and imagine St. Joseph and a heavily pregnant Virgin Mary, arriving in Bethlehem to enroll in a census, and finding no room at the inn.  However chances are, you’re unaware that the home of the man whom St. Luke credited with playing a crucial part in the timing and location of that birth still stands.

This week Italian authorities announced that after 18 years of work and over $3 million in investment, restoration of the complex on the Palatine Hill in Rome known as the “Domus Augusti” or “House of Augustus” has been completed.  It was the primary residence of Augustus and his family for decades, beginning around 28 B.C., and therefore in a real sense the center of the Western world at the time of his reign.  The Domus Augusti will now be open to the public on a very limited, tour-only basis, and said tours will include sections of the villa which were not previously open to visitors.

For Christians in particular, there is something poignant about this residence.  Certainly, there are historical problems with the timing of St. Luke’s account of a census in 1st century Judea, and the known history of the region in the Augustan Age. Not being a Biblical scholar, I will not attempt to address those issues here.  Nevertheless, one cannot lose sight of the fact that decisions which affected the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus’ Birth, and therefore Jesus Himself, were made on this spot.

While the furnishings are long gone of course, it is still possible to get a sense of what living in the villa was like.  Many of the walls of the home are decorated with bright, colorful frescoes of architectural vistas and swags of flowers.  What is particularly striking about the Domus Augusti however, is that it is not particularly grand, and certainly not what one would imagine the home of an emperor to look like.  So why would the most powerful man in Rome live in a house that did not reflect his status?

The answer lies in the fact that Augustus was a shrewd politician.  He saw what had happened to his great-uncle Julius Caesar, the man who had adopted the young Octavian (as Augustus then was) as his heir before his assassination.  He also knew that the way to have the people and the politicians stay in line was to keep them happy, in part by not seeming to live like a despot.

Thus, this residence is not the egomaniacal assemblage of later emperors such as Nero, but rather the well-appointed home of a man of means, albeit not one given to indulging in flights of fancy or frippery.  The restrained character of the house was remarked on not only in Augustus’ time, but by later admirers. In his marvelous book “The Twelve Caesars” of around 121 A.D., the Roman historian Suetonius  notes that the Domus Augusti was pretty much just as we perceive it today: “a modest dwelling, remarkable neither for size or elegance, having but a short colonnade with columns of local stone, and rooms without any marble decorations or handsome pavements.”  It seems a strikingly livable home, rather than an imposingly palatial piece of self-aggrandizement.

Of course, for anyone who loves history, grandeur is beside the point when visiting a structure like this.  The thought of the conversations that took place in these rooms, as the Roman Empire spread across the known world, is tantalizing.  To be able to wander down corridors where the real-life characters in Robert Graves’ superb novel, “I, Claudius” once met, to plot and plan with or against Augustus, is to hear the echoes of another time grow just that much stronger.

That being said, what truly gives me pause is the fact that this villa in Rome, and a more humble home in Bethlehem, stood at the exact same time. It is not hard to imagine that one evening, as Augustus stayed up late writing at his desk, or wandered through his garden with a case of insomnia, he was thinking upon many things, but no doubt confident of his own importance and legacy.  Meanwhile, completely unbeknownst to the Emperor, the most important person in human history was being born, 1400 miles away: a man whose importance and legacy would far outshine that of the man who lived in this comfortable Roman house.  That connection, for me, is the real wonder of this structure.

A security guard in one of the rooms of the Domus Augusti

A security guard in one of the rooms of the Domus Augusti, on the Palatine Hill in Rome