Monday, March 28, 2022

A Tale of Three Holy Cards

One of the most hackneyed of all clichés is that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” But there’s a reason certain familiar sayings arise in the first place, and that’s because they express a truth beyond gainsaying.

Some time ago, as I was visiting with a dear Benedictine friend of mine, I happened to notice two holy cards in his monastic breviary. The first was a card with nutty looking geometric shapes and a font that screamed 1970s. The other was a card that could have been from the 19th century.

I told the monk I’m a collector of vintage holy cards (sometime I’ll have to put pictures of some of them up on NLM), and that I’d enjoy giving these two a closer look. My guess of the 1970s was off just a little. The card featuring geometric shapes and the saying “The Creator has made the world…Come and see it” from the Pima Indians was an ordination holy card from May 30, 1965.

Ordination Holy Card (1965)
The other card, once I held it, felt surprisingly new. It turned out to be an ordination holy card from May 24, 2014. The text on the back of this card (not shown here) was not taken from the Pima Indians but from Hebrews 5, in the Knox translation no less:
The purpose for which any high priest is chosen from among his fellow men, and made a representative of men in their dealings with God, is to offer gifts and sacrifices in expiation of their sins. He is qualified for this by being able to feel for them when they are ignorant and make mistakes, since he, too, is all beset with humiliations, and, for that reason, must needs present sin-offerings for himself, just as he does for the people. His vocation comes from God, as Aaron’s did; nobody can take on himself such a privilege as this. … Thou art a priest for ever, in the line of Melchisedech.
Ordination Holy Card (2014)
I went to my holy card collection and pulled out a holy card from 1909, printed in Csákova, Romania, for the first Mass of a German priest. This card is smaller and narrower, as is often the case with older cards, and says at the bottom: “Das Himmelsbrod will ich empfangen und anrufen den Namen des Herrn. – I will receive the bread of heaven and call upon the Name of the Lord.” On the back, it says: “Heiliges Herz Jesu, ich vertaue auf dich! – Sacred Heart of Jesus, I trust in Thee!”

First Mass Holy Card (1909)
What do we notice when we look at this progression—1909, 1965, 2014?

The 1909 card, with sensitive rendering, evokes the natural order elevated to the supernatural through the liturgy, with the wheat and grapes yielding themselves into the chalice surrounded by light, mounted on an altar book that is wrapped in a stole embroidered with crosses, the whole graced by a Eucharistic text. Two world wars and fifty-six years later, the 1965 card lacks any Christian symbols or texts, any indication that it has anything to do with the priesthood, or even any representational art to speak of. Forty-nine years later, the 2014 card shows a priest bowing humbly before the altar, where, in mystic vision, the High Priest blesses him as he mediates for the people, in the midst of a great church. Light—the light of grace and truth—cascades from Jesus, the Head of the Mystical Body, to the priest and people, in that hierarchical order. The 2014 card, with different imagery, is saying the same thing as the 1909 card: here is the source of light and life; here is the elevation of nature by grace; here is the special work of the ordained minister.

When we look with pained embarrassment at the 1965 card, we cannot help feeling that the 1960s are, with rare exceptions, thoroughly dead—and never was a death so welcome. Like the priests of centuries past, today’s youthful clergy have surrendered themselves to a genuine priestly vocation, with a spirit of awe, reverence, and veneration for the sacred mysteries. They are (just as the Letter to the Hebrews teaches) chosen mediators who offer gifts and sacrifices. The luminous liturgical theology of Pope Benedict XVI and the joyful rediscovery of the ancient Roman Rite of Mass have had much to do with this renewal. May they continue to bring in a harvest of vocations, men who wish to serve in union with, and in imitation of, the Heart of Jesus.

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