Friday, March 31, 2023

Passiontide 2023 Photopost (Part 2)

As always, thanks to all of our photopost contributors - we look forward to seeing your pictures of Palm Sunday liturgies. Keep up the good work of evangelizing through beauty!

Parróquia de la Magdalena – Seville, Spain
Parish of the Conception of Our Lady – Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, Brasil
Brompton Oratory – London, England
Private oratory of Mr John Ryan Debil, who, as we have reported before, REALLY makes an effort... (thanks to him also for the photos of the Brompton Oratory.)

Architectural Aids: Two Reviews

Sketch by Peter F. Anson

A review of Carl Van Treeck and Aloysius Croft, Symbols in the Church (Romanitas Press, 2021) and Peter F. Anson, Churches: Their Plan and Furnishing (Romanitas Press, 2021)

It is a fact without doubt that the Roman Missal represents in its entirety the loftiest and most important work in ecclesiastical literature, being that it shows forth with the greatest fidelity the life-history of the Church, that sacred poem in the making of which ha posto mano e cielo e terra [“Heaven and earth have set their hand,” Dante, Paradiso XXV,2].[1]
The temple of Solomon… was not alone the binding of the holy book; it was the holy book itself. On each one of its concentric walls, the priests could read the word translated and manifested to the eye, and thus they followed its transformations from sanctuary to sanctuary, until they seized it in its last tabernacle… Thus the word was enclosed in an edifice.[2]
Here is a riddle: What are the three most important books in Catholic life that are not books? The answer is: the Bible (which, despite its modern binding, is not a book but a library of works co-authored by the Holy Spirit ); the traditional Roman Missal (which, though also appearing in book form, is a set of instructions for a sacred action); and the church (a building that, like the Holy Temple, is meant to be read cover to cover).
But if it is true that the church, like all great architecture, is a book (Victor Hugo calls architecture the great book of humanity), then it takes training to read it. One must learn its alphabet and grammar, so to speak, in order to understand its sentences and paragraphs. And yet not many people today are artistically or architecturally literate. One of modern Catholicism’s deficiencies is the widespread inability of its faithful to decipher the symbols of their Faith.
It is for this reason that we can be grateful to Romanitas Press for republishing two volumes on the subject: Carl Van Treeck and Aloysius Croft’s 1936 Symbols in the Church and Peter F. Anson’s 1947 Churches: Their Plan and Furnishing.
Peter Anson (1889-1975) was a restless and talented soul. Born near the sea in Portsmouth, England and trained as an architect, he entered an Anglican Benedictine monastery in 1910. Three years later, he and his community submitted to the Holy See and became Catholic. Anson eventually became an Oblate and the monastery’s librarian; he also founded the Apostleship of the Sea for Catholic seafarers. After a breakdown in health, however, Anson decided to return to the world, and at the age of 35 he earned a living as an artist while seeing the world. He became a Franciscan Tertiary for a while in Italy but returned to his nomadic life before eventually settling down in a village of sailors and fisherman in Macduff, Scotland, where he could savor the life of the sea once more.
Anson wrote Church Plans as a practical guide for building and remodeling churches. The author wisely cautions against altering churches simply because they do not conform to contemporary sensibilities, and he frowns upon antiquarian and unimaginative resuscitations of earlier styles. His language of functionalism and his disdain for “fancy symbolism” are slightly troublesome, for they could be interpreted as an excuse to produce barren barns and call them churches. But Anson himself does not go in this direction: his meticulous illustrations and moderate counsel open the reader up to the riches of sacred architecture. Anson faithfully operates within the strictures of the 1917 Code of Canon Law and other Church legislation. His summary of these regulations is quite useful, although not all of it is still valid, such as the prohibition of electric lights for illuminating the altar (112).
As you may have guessed from his biography, Anson was an eccentric fellow, and Church Plans is an eccentric work. The author does not shy from offering his own advice in addition to official Church rules. Pulpits, he opines, should be elevated, made of wood (“it looks warmer and gives more color to a church”), and have a door (“many an eloquent preacher would feel far more at his ease if knew there was no danger of falling backwards”) and a solid front (“it is distracting to see the preacher’s cassock and feet”)(156). He also holds the odd view that if the weather were perfectly clement every day, we would not need churches at all but would celebrate Mass in an open field (3). He seems to forget that churches do not simply provide shelter from the rain but, among other things, help keep our minds from wandering.
The chief weakness of Church Plans is that it tries to square the circle between traditional architecture and modernist. Anson quotes passages that advocate placing the altar in the center of the church and advises a “happy mean” between the new view and the old (39). But how can you have a happy mean between an altar in the center of the church and an altar at the end: placing it three-quarters of the way in? Fortunately, Anson’s go-to authority on practical matters is St. Charles Borromeo, so he almost never ends up recommending something silly. And although he includes illustrations of modernist abominations (there is a bleak, free-standing altar for Mass facing the people from 1935 Germany), his own rich sketches betray the stark differences. After being enchanted by page after page of beautiful churches, seeing a design by Hans Herkommer or Eric Gill is like a punch in the gut.

Sketch by P.F. Anson. Yes!
Sketch by P.F. Anson. No!

Although Church Plans is thin on symbolic explanations, it is nonetheless useful for gaining a better understanding of the meaning and parts of a church. Equipped with this understanding, readers can then continue their education in sacred architecture with the works of men like Duncan Stroik.
Carl Van Treeck and Aloysius Croft’s Symbols in the Church was also written as a practical guide for artists and “ecclesiastical craftsmen” rather than students of symbolism (vi). Annotations are scarce as well as scholarly explanations of styles, historical context, etc. Like Church Plans, the images are illustrated with black-and-white sketches rather than photographs. The disadvantage of this choice is that the image is more dependent on the viewpoint of the artist; the advantage, however, is a unity of presentation, a greater beauty, and, in this case, the superior viewpoint of the artist, Carl Van Treeck. The basic idea behind Symbols in the Church is to introduce artists to “the beautiful picture language” of the Mystical Body of Christ (vi) so that they can adapt these symbols to contemporary use. Happily, the authors did not follow their own rule strictly but included some early representations of Christ that are no longer recognizable as such, e.g., a griffin, a peacock, a phoenix, and a bird in a cage (representing gestation in His mother’s womb!). As a result, the reader catches something of the breadth and depth of Catholic symbolism, which has varied from century to century and place to place.
Symbols in the Church begins with an interesting chapter on symbols and symbolism in which the authors argue that all Christian art must necessarily be symbolic because Christian art portrays some element of the supernatural. (“Sheer naturalness” they state earlier, is “the death of all liturgical art” [vi]). The rest of the book is divided according to subject matter: the Holy Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, the Gospels and Evangelists, the Apostles, the Church, the Sacraments, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Ecclesiastical Year, and the Four Last Things.
The entire book is a delight to peruse, but I was especially fascinated by the symbols of the Church, some of which surprised me (there are a lot more than just Noah’s Ark and Peter’s Barque). And I was struck by an image of the Last Judgment depicting scales, one of which is filled with the cross, the anchor, and the crown of thorns, the other of which is laden with jewels. The latter tilts upward: the virtues and sufferings of the faithful soul outweigh the riches and comforts of the world.
Plate XXXVIII of Symbols in the Church. Symbols of death (1 and 2), judgment (3 and 4), and damnation (5).
Church Plans and Symbols in the Church fit hand in glove: Anson more or less tells you how to build a church, and Van Treeck and Croft tell you how to decorate it. I recommend these books to anyone interested in Catholic art and architecture but especially as gifts to priests and planning committees in charge of building or remodeling churches. God willing, with aids like these, “writing” beautiful churches will once again become common.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Passiontide 2023 Photopost (Part 1)

Here is our first photopost of your churches with the crosses and statues veiled for Passiontide. There will definitely be at least one more in this series, possibly two, before we move on to Holy Week, and there is always room for more, so feel free to send yours in to, and remember to include the name and location of the church, and anything other information you think important. We will also be glad to include photos of other recent celebrations such as the Annunciation, and rose colored vestments on Laetare Sunday. Thanks to the contributors, and to everyone who is doing so much good work to restore and preserve the great inheritance of our Catholic liturgical tradition - evangelize through beauty!      

Oratory of St Wilfrid – York, England
Santa Chiara – Ferrara, Italy

A Musical Monument of Lenten Piety: Dietrich Buxtehude’s “Membra Jesu Nostri”

Our thanks to Julian Kwasniewski for sharing with us this lovely explanation of some devotional music for Passiontide. Mr Kwasniewski is a musician specializing in Renaissance lute and vocal music, an artist and graphic designer, as well as marketing consultant for several Catholic companies. His writings have appeared in this publication, National Catholic Register, OnePeterFive, Crisis, Latin Mass Magazine, and The European Conservative. You can find some of his artwork on Etsy, and his music on YouTube.

Photo by Fr Lawrence Lew O.P. 

One of the great monuments of devotional music from the Baroque period is Dieterich Buxtehude’s cycle of seven sacred cantatas Membra Jesu Nostri, which sets Biblical and medieval Latin poetry in honor of the wounds of Christ. Buxtehude (1637-1707) was a Dutch organist and composer who had significant influence on other later Baroque composers such as Handel and Bach. Regarded primarily as a keyboard composer until the early 20th century, over 100 vocal compositions of his survive. A number of his vocal pieces have been lost, including oratorios—mini-opera’s focusing on religious themes.

Although he—like Bach—composed for Lutheran congregations, it was not unusual for Buxtehude to use devotional or Biblical texts in Latin stemming from the Catholic tradition. Such is Membra Jesu Nostri, whose main text is drawn from a medieval poem Salve mundi salutare in honor of the crucified Christ, often attributed to St Bernard. This work is extant in a number of variant forms; in Buxtehude’s cantata, it is paired with various scriptural texts.
Membra Jesu Nostri is scored for five voices: two sopranos, alto, tenor, and bass, along with a small ensemble of instruments: two violins, cello, and “basso continuo.” This last is a type of accompaniment, based on harmonic indications paired with a bass line, and in some ways reminiscent of modern guitar chord symbols, because it gave performers indications rather than exact notes to play, leaving room for improvisation and decoration. This “basso continuo” could be played by multiple instruments, often organ or harpsichord, lute, harp, and a bowed instrument like a cello or the viola da gamba, an instrument similar to the cello, but with more strings.
One of the best performances of Membra Jesu Nostri was directed by René Jacobs, and includes two of my favorite singers. One is Maria Cristina Kiehr, an Argentinian soprano whose voice avoids the operatic vibrato that often makes classically-trained singers off-putting. The second singer is Andreas Scholl, one of the world’s leading countertenors, meaning that he sings in an alto range using his falsetto. Scholl avoids the squeaky or thin sound that sometimes is associated with the male falsetto, instead giving us a rich and warm sound perfectly controlled and ornamented. This performance is well filmed, giving a good glimpse of the various historical instruments being used. The basso continuo is played on an organ, lute, and “violone”, a type of Renaissance-era double bass.
Turning to the libretto, each cantata addresses a part of Jesus’ crucified body: feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and face. Buxtehude alternates between “concerto” sections using the full choir and all the instruments, with arias of one, two, or three voices and simple accompaniment. A full translation can be found on Wikipedia.
Ad Pedes—“to the feet”. The piece opens with an instrumental “sinfonia”, or short prelude, which itself opens with a static C minor chord before plunging into a stirring counterpoint. The primary sentiment of this section is encapsulated by the final bass aria:
“Sweet Jesus, merciful God
I cry to You, in my guilt
Show me Your grace,
Turn me not unworthy away
From Your sacred feet.”
If you want to try a slightly slower take on the piece, you might try listening to this performance.
Ad Genua—“to the knees”. This movement opens with slow sonata “in tremulo”, where the bowed instruments create a wavering, pulsing effect by their bowing technique. The Concerto text is taken from Isaiah, where the prophet speaks of Jerusalem as a mother, but here applied to the crucified Christ: “You will be brought to nurse and dandled on the knees”. Again, a different and slower take on this movement may be found here:
Ad Manus—“to the hands”. This sinfonia opens with violent phrases which climax in a E flat dissonance against a D on the word “wounds” two measures after the choir comes in. As in the previous movement, the final aria is a trio.
Ad Latus—“to the side”. This fourth movement opens in a 6:4 time-signature, maintaining a triple meter until the arias. This gives it a dance-like quality that perfectly matches the text taken from the Song of Songs, calling the beloved to rise up: “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come, my dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hollow of the cliff.” Mystical writers have long associated the dove with the soul and the cleft of the rock as the wound in Christ’s side. Between the arias in four-four time, the sinfonias revert to triple time.
Ad Pectus—“to the breast”. For this movement, Buxtehude reduces the five voices of the concerto to three, just alto, tenor, and bass. The opening text from St Paul on “rational infants drinking the rational milk” is applied to drinking from the wound in Christ’s side, a theme found in such writers as St Bernard. René Jacobs interpretation of the whole piece is considerably faster than others: listen here to see the sort of difference between a more resonant space, slower tempo, and having two singers per line. Note that here there is no plucked instrument in the basso continuo.
Ad Cor—“to the heart”. In this penultimate section, Buxtehude changes the ensemble’s instrumentation, substituting five viola da gambas for the two violins and cello. This creates a very rich and somber tonal landscape. Another effect Buxtehude utilizes is a regular change of time-signature. This gives me the impression of a racing heart alternating with deep sorrow when one is in the grip of a strong emotion. The vocal forces are reduced to two sopranos and bass. The lyrical bass solo which forms the centerpiece of this sixth movement interweaves with the viol consort, melding into a trio where dissonances in all parts build tension and emotion on the words from the Song of Songs “vulnerasti cor meum”, “you have wounded my heart”. Another beautiful take on this movement (although only the first part) is by Ensemble ZENE.
Ad Faciem—“to the face”. In the final movement, we are back at the original scoring of five voices and violins. In a rhythmic concerto section, a text from the Psalms is sung: Let Your face shine upon Your servant, save me in Your mercy.” An unusual 6:4 trio aria emphasizes the stanza of the Latin poem which speaks of the crowning with thorns. Rather than repeating the concerto as the other movements have done, this final one ends with a contrapuntal Amen reminiscent of some Bach cantatas.
Even if you are not a musician, and couldn’t care less what a sinfonia, viola da gamba, or a time signature is, I believe that Membra Jesu Nostri has the power that all beautiful works of art have: to speak to the soul, uplift it, and draw one out of oneself. As we continue in our Lent towards Holy Week, perhaps listening to these cantatas can be an opportunity for relaxation, artistic renewal, and spiritual revelation.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

“I Am The Lord Your God” - The Law of Moses in the Liturgy of Lent

The Gospels of the Wednesdays of Lent are united by a common theme, in that they all speak, directly or obliquely, of the controversies over the person of Jesus of Nazareth: whether He was the long-awaited Messiah, and the nature of the Messiah’s rule and authority. Ash Wednesday, a later addition to the Roman Rite, is an exception; the Gospel, Matthew 6, 16-21, is His words from the Sermon on the Mount about the proper way to fast, for obvious reasons.
In the first week of Lent, on Ember Wednesday, the Gospel is Matthew 12, 38-50, in which the scribes and Pharisees ask the Lord to perform a sign to prove that He is in fact the Messiah. To this He replies that they will be given no sign but “the sign of Jonah”, the first reference to the Resurrection in Lent, and hence to its necessary premise, the Crucifixion.
Christ and the Wife and Sons of Zebedee, ca. 1565 by Paolo Veronese (1528-88); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons
The following Wednesday, the Gospel is Matthew 20, 17-28, which begins with Christ’s third prediction of the Passion and Resurrection, followed by the discourse with the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee. Her request that her sons sit at Christ’s right and left in His kingdom strongly implies that she also understands the Messiah’s kingdom to be an earthly one, but on Good Friday, Jesus Himself will say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
In the third week, the Gospel is Matthew’s account (15, 1-20) of the controversy over the rites observed by the Pharisees, particularly, the custom of washing the hands before eating. Here, the controversy is an implicit one: does Christ have the authority to dispense His followers from observing such a “tradition of the elders”? The reading ends with His own declaration that He does, for He simply states, as one speaking with authority, “To eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.”
The fourth week is St John’s account (9, 1-38) of the healing of the man born blind, a considerable portion of which (verses 13-34) is taken up with the Pharisees’ discussion of what the act of healing means in regard to the Healer. “Some therefore of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not of God, who keepeth not the sabbath.’ But others said. ‘How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles?’ And there was a division among them.”
Christ Heals the Man Born Blind, 1871, by the Danish painter Carl Bloch (1834-90); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The final Gospel in this series is also from St John (10, 22-38). During the feast of the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem, the crowd says, “How long dost thou hold our souls in suspense? If thou art the Christ, tell us plainly.” But when He says, “ ‘I and the Father are one’, they took up stones to stone Him.”
Since the Thursday of Passion Week was originally an aliturgical day, on which no Mass was celebrated, this Gospel would originally have been the last one by which Roman liturgy set the stage, as it were, for the Passion, an explanation that the priests and Pharisees wanted to kill Him because they regarded Him as a blasphemer. With the Gospel of Friday, John 11, 47-54, the Passion begins as they start to plot against the Lord in earnest.
On alternating weeks in this series, the first, third and fifth of Lent, the Epistles are taken from the books of Moses. On Ember Wednesday (Exodus 24, 12-18), he ascends the mountain to receive the Law, and there beholds the glory of the Lord, “and was there for forty days and forty nights.” This sets the pattern for the Lenten fast of forty days, observed also by Elijah in the second reading (3 Kings 19, 3-8), and by Christ Himself in the Gospel of the previous Sunday (Matthew 4, 1-11.) The three of them then appear together on Ember Saturday and the following Sunday in the Gospel of the Transfiguration, the first open manifestation of Jesus’ divinity to His disciples.
A mid-12th century icon of the Transfiguration, from the monastery of St Catherine on Mt Sinai; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
This manifestation is echoed in the Epistle of the Wednesday of the third week, Exodus 20, 12-24, which begins with the second part of the Decalogue, the seven among the Ten Commandments that regard one’s dealings with other men. This is followed by the manifestations of God’s glory that so terrify the people that they say to Moses, “Speak thou to us, and let the Lord not speak to us, lest perchance we die.”
This series culminates on Passion Wednesday with one of the Roman Rite’s few readings from the book of Leviticus, a selection of verses from chapter 19 (1-2a; 10c-19a; 25b). This selection seems to have been inspired by the third book of St Augustine’s Questions on the Heptateuch, on Leviticus, which limits its treatment of this chapter to almost exactly these verses.
The opening two verses are merely an introduction: “In those days, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to all the assembly of the sons of Israel, and thou shalt say to them:’ ” The fragments of verses 10 and 25 that open the reading (after the introduction) and close it are the same “I am the Lord your God.” When read at the same Mass at the Gospel in which Christ says, “I and the Father are one”, this is clearly intended as an assertion of His divinity, which is prophesied in the Law, and that He is indeed the Messiah whose coming is foretold in the Law. As Philip says to Nathaniel in chapter 1, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and the prophets did write, Jesus the son of Joseph of Nazareth.”
Christ in the Portico of Solomon, 1886-96, by the French painter James Tissot (1836-1902); from the website of the Brooklyn Museum.
Since this is the middle of Passion week, this reading also presents the violence done to the Lord in His Passion as a violation of the Law of Moses. “Ye shall not lie” (vs. 11), but “there came two false witnesses, and they said, ‘This man said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and after three days to rebuild it.’ ” (Matt. 26, 61) “Thou shalt not swear falsely by my name, nor profane the name of thy God” (vs. 12), but “the high priest said to him, ‘I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us if thou be the Christ the Son of God,’ ” (Matt. 26, 63) the same question posed in today’s Gospel. “Thou shalt not calumniate thy neighbor, nor oppress him by violence. (vs. 13) … Thou shalt not do that which is unjust, nor judge unjustly. (vs. 15) Thou shalt not stand against the blood of thy neighbor. (vs. 16)”
The Introit preserves an Old Latin reading of Psalm 17, “My deliverer from the wrathful nations…” where the Vulgate has “from my wrathful enemies.” In such a context, this seems to present the Lord’s persecutors as Jews who have become like gentiles by their violation of the Law which God gave to their people.
On the ferias of Lent and Passion week, the Communion antiphons are taken each one from a different Psalm in sequential order, starting on Ash Wednesday with Psalm 1. The days which were formerly aliturgical do not form part of this series, namely, the six Thursdays, and also the first and last Saturday. (See the table below; click for larger view.) The series is also interrupted on six days when particularly important passages of the Gospels are read, and the Communion is taken from them instead.
The Communion for today is taken from Psalm 25, because it follows this sequence, but the specific choice of verses (6-7) is not casual. “I will wash my hands among the innocent”, refers to Christ’s innocence, and to the controversy with the Pharisees over the washing of the hands before meals. “And encompass thy altar, o Lord”: the Gospel takes place during the dedication feast of the temple, where the Lord’s altar is. “That I may hear the voice of thy praise, and tell of all thy wondrous deeds.” An early commentary on the Psalms expounds this verse as follows: “So that when I have learned, I may explain to others that miracle, how Thou didst suffer for us, and didst rise.” (Breviarium (i.e. short commentary) in Psalmos, formerly attributed to either St Jerome or St Augustine; PL XXVI, 893C)

Tenebrae with Tallis’ Lamentation in Louisville, Kentucky, April 5th

On Wednesday, April 5th, beginning at 8:00 pm, St Martin of Tours Catholic Church and Our Lady and St John Catholic Church will host a Tenebrae service at the parish of St Martin, located in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, at 639 South Shelby Street. The music, sung by the choir of St Martin of Tours, will include Thomas Tallis’ setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah and the motet Christus Factus Est by Anton Bruckner.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Roman Pilgrims at the Station Churches 2023 (Part 6)

Once again, our thanks to Jacob and Agnese for sharing their photos of the Lenten Station churches in Rome.

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent – St Lawrence “in Damaso”
Since there are so many churches in Rome dedicated to St Lawrence (more, in fact, than to either St Peter or St Paul), they are distinguished by various nicknames; this one is named for its founder, Pope St Damasus I (366-84). The chancery building of the Roman Curia, constructed between 1489 and 1513, encloses it on two sides and above, so the procession before Mass is held in its courtyard.
Kudos to Jacob for these two particular good shots of the courtyard!

The Philosophy of Mainstream Art Education and Criticism: Part 2

The appeal of Neo-Marxism as a quasi religion, and the counter-revolutionary power of Christian sacred art.

Last week, in Part 1, I described how, despite the fact that it is often cited as the driving force of the contemporary art world, postmodernism as it appears in art schools is not distinguishable from Marxist ideology and one of its recent iterations, Critical Theory. This week I examine the nature of the Marxist ideology in more depth.

Marxism originated as a pseudo-scientific method of inquiry made in the 19th century by Karl Marx, and is therefore, ironically, firmly part of the ‘modernity’ that the contemporary art movement claims to be a reaction to. It was first known as ‘scientific socialism’ because it claimed a methodology that applied the principles of analysis of natural science to history, in order to predict the future of society. By tracing the chain of events in history and applying the laws of cause-and-effect, Marxists predict a Utopian future in which all human needs are met. The necessary causal influence for change that pushes mankind on to its final destiny is in their view, violence. The violence that will bring about the desired change is, they claim, the product of an ongoing struggle between oppressor classes and the oppressed that will lead first to the total destruction of present society, and then the rise of a utopia out of the ashes.

In this scenario the oppressors fight to maintain the status quo which benefits them, and the oppressed fight to destroy it. Building on ideas developed by the German philosopher Hegel, this ‘dialectic’ of opposites, oppressors and the oppressed, is not seen as a harmonious process of resolution by discussion, but rather one that can only be resolved by the victory of the oppressed over their oppressors. Violent conflict is seen therefore as a necessary component to its resolution.
This is not a political movement that seeks to change modern society into one that is more just. Rather, it is an ideology, a cultish pseudo-religion that seeks the total destruction of the present society so that a fresh start can be made. There is however, no template for what this new society will look like, for it is assumed that it will emerge naturally from human interactions free from the traditions of the past. 
In the 19th century and earlier 20th century, it was thought that the struggles between the capital-owning class, bourgeoisie, and the workers, would usher in the new Utopia. The Russian revolution of 1917 brought in a Marxist government, and the expectation was that this would be the first in a wave of such revolutions across the Western world.

It quickly became clear, however, that the expected wave of revolutions was not going to happen. The workers didn’t want to be revolutionaries because their living conditions were steadily improving in the capitalist system without the need for revolution. The response of the Marxist theorists to the failure of history was to revise the hypothesis.

Mexican revolutionary art
In the new theories, which began to take hold after the Second World War, the need for violent destruction of contemporary society remained, but the class struggle became one between a different set of parties. Rather than traditional class struggle with bourgeoisie as oppressors and workers as the oppressed, the violent dialectic of destruction was proposed as one between Caucasian men - the ‘white patrimony’ - as the oppressor class, and everybody else - minority groups -  as the oppressed. Therefore women, non-Caucasian races, gay men and women, and transsexual people  were all now classed as victims who are to be incited to fight for their freedom. This revised theory of Marxism is referred to today as Critical Theory and is the ethos that dominates modern universities. It is particularly prevalent in the humanities and fine arts programs.

The great appeal of socialist theory is that even though it is an atheist and materialist philosophy, it provides a narrative for the emergence of a perfect world, without requiring its adherents to believe in God or the Christian moral code. Its promise of a materialist Utopia is an atheist-materialist alternative to the salvation history offered by Christianity. Further, it indulges the unhappy, whom it recruits to its cause, by indulging their desire to blame others - the oppressor class - for their unhappiness.

Given that man is made by God to desire God and heaven, and to recognize the account of salvation history recounted in Scripture as the truth, this alternative ideology with its superficial similarity to some aspects of what the Christian faith teaches, even though false, has the capacity to appeal powerfully to that part of us that yearns for God and for the truth. That place deep in the core of us which grasps such fundamental truths is referred to traditionally as ‘the heart’. It is in our hearts that we assent to, or reject, God. The false teachings of socialism fall very easily into the vacuum that is created in our hearts by the rejection of God.
Socialist ideology, therefore, plays the part of a quasi secular faith for so many of those who accept it. So strong is this appeal and the desire for it to be true that even when the events of history fail to confirm its hypothesis, many just flatly ignore the contradictions, or seek to revise the hypothesis to fit the facts rather than admit it is wrong.

Critical theory, the latest iteration of Marxist theory, is responsible for the grievance politics of race, gender, and sexual orientation that dominate so much political discourse today. They deliberately provoke disharmony and sometimes even violence between different groups of people, based upon race, gender and sexuality.

Chinese revolutionary art
Marxist theorists argue that all the current institutions that form the basis of Western society are created by Caucasian men as instruments of power that enable them to oppress all other groups of people. The critique is all encompassing and includes every aspect of contemporary society, including liberal democracy, the free market economy, the right to private property, our universities and schools, the Christian religion, and even the family. The critique of Western society and culture goes beyond the institutions that uphold them, it goes to the very ideas upon which they are founded. The existence of God, and even the existence of objective truth (beyond the Marxist narrative itself which is the only measure of truth they will acknowledge). All are viewed as instruments of oppression by the white patriarchy. Similarly, all art, architecture, music and other aspects of the culture that emanate from traditional Western values are seen as instruments of oppression, for they all help to sustain and transmit Western values.

The Marxist asserts that there is no possibility of modifying these institutions, because their very existence is built on the premises of Western thought. Therefore, the only way to remove the oppression and injustice, which they suppose is permeating all of Western society, is to destroy all the institutions, and every aspect of the culture that reflect it and have grown up within it and continue to transmit and sustain its values. This goal of destruction applies to everything, right down the family.

Marxists are aware of the profound influence of culture on forming opinion and have always sought to control and manipulate the institutions of the culture - universities, the news media, as well as political institutions. They have been extremely successful in manipulating the form and message of contemporary art, music, architecture, film etc., so that it is consistent with their world view. This at a time when Christians, who should have opposed this all the way, seem to have lost sight of the importance of a contemporary culture that supports a culture of faith.

At the same time, Marxists rarely reveal that this is what their theories are. So many who push Critical Theory will do so without fully revealing the source of these theories, or what their ultimate goal is. While the political rhetoric of Marxism is deliberately presented as though it is interested in righting wrongs and countering injustice, in practice it does the opposite. Its actions are aimed at amplifying the sense of victimhood and grievance. The intention in doing this is to raise anger in the assigned oppressed groups so that they will rise up violently.  To this end Marxists are happy to engage with any forces that are likely to engage in a forceful struggle against the West. This explains the apparent paradox in the Left’s tolerance of fundamentalist Islam, even when some tenets of the Islamic faith contradict those of Marxism.

As a result of this, the assumptions of Marxist ideology have seeped into the mainstream and adopted by people who very often are not aware of the implications of what they think. This is true of many who call themselves Christian.
Cuban revolutionary art
This runs deep. There are Catholics, for example, all the way to Rome who accept the Marxist critique of capitalism and the free economy, without realising that this critique promotes a worldview that is contrary to their own faith. It is not common for people to see private property as necessary evil rather than a good upon which a Christian society must be founded. Similarly there are many Christians who are sympathetic to other socialist or Marxist ideas, and who are unaware that they are working with a force that is directed towards the destruction of their Christian faith and all the main institutions of society. It sounds virtuous to be in favor of diversity and equality, for example, as long as we don’t investigate too far the consequences of the policies proposed to rectify the supposed lack of diversity and inequality.

Christ Carrying His Cross by Annibale Caracci, Italian, 17th century baroque

Above and below: Christian sacred art, which I present by way of contrast to the revolutionary art shown. It is important for Christians to assert the story of the Salvation in order to supplant the story of the revolution. All aspects of the culture should play a part in this, and by all good means possible. However, the source and summit of our weapons in this cultural war should be in the liturgical forms.
Regarding sacred art, I suggest that as a starting point, we can consider that what was good for the Catholic Counter-Reformation is good for the the Catholic Counter-Revolution. Just as sacred art played a vital part in the Counter-Reformation (in the form of the Baroque art) so it will now.
Notice how this Christian art shows not conventional victorious heroes, in the manner of the Marxist inspired art, but rather, the paradoxical victory by death and suffering. Christian ‘counter-revolutionary’ art is sacred art in which the New Jerusalem is ushered in not by a a military or political leader, but by God through Christ, whose victory was achieved through his own death. And the measure of that victory is peace in the hearts of Christians. It is the peace that passeth understanding that will displace the Marxist ‘anti-faith’ from the hearts of men.

The Martyrdom of St Bartholomew by Mattia Preti (1653-60). The great Christian counter-revolutionary heroes are the martyrs who accept suffering for their faith and participate in this victory.

And the greatest counter-revolutionary is Mary the Mother of God, whose humility and maternal love is the antithesis of all that the Marxist theorists stand for. This is painted by Theophan the Greek, who was born in Constantinople in the 14th century and moved to Russia, becoming influential on Russian iconography.

Monday, March 27, 2023

How Cistercians Can Help Us Reimagine the Ceremony of the Washing of Feet

Every year, we come back to the Holy Thursday ceremony of the washing of the feet — and all the  controversy that surrounds it when women are included among the group whose feet are washed. Sadly, we seem to be living in a time where liturgy often becomes another socio-political statement, thanks to a pervasive disregard for the wisdom of Catholic tradition and the simultaneous conviction that we ourselves are the masters and possessors of the liturgy, that we know better than our benighted forebears. Liturgy then risks turning into a declaration of our preconceptions, priorities, and politics. How many people consider themselves bound to do things the traditional way because they have a fundamental trust that this way is good, holy, wise, greater than I am, and ready to teach me spiritual lessons if I but apprentice myself to it?

I would like to suggest that in regard to the Holy Thursday mandatum ceremony, we can learn a valuable lesson from the Cistercian tradition — one that could resolve even this particular dispute in a surprisingly sympathetic manner.

First, we must recognize that Our Lord's washing of the feet has a double aspect to it, which, it seems to me, accounts for some of the confusion we have managed to introduce by not thinking through how these two aspects are related. One aspect is the washing of the apostles’ feet at their ordination and the first Mass. Here, the accent is definitely placed on the apostolic college as the kernel of the new ministerial priesthood of the new covenant. The other aspect is the washing of the feet as a symbol of serving one’s fellow man in general, even as Christ came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Thus we have something of a paradox here: a symbolic action of universal application is nevertheless being given at a very particular event in salvation history with a very special group of men—not just any human beings, not just any male individuals, but the first priests and bishops of the Church. The Virgin Mary was holier than all of them put together, she offered her Son most perfectly the next day at the foot of the Cross, and she guided the nascent Church in profound ways we will understand only in heaven. And yet she was not called upon to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice nor to govern local churches, as the Apostles and their successors did; nor was she among the men whose feet were washed at the Last Supper.

This tension in the mandatum between the universal charity symbolism and the particular apostolic/priestly symbolism makes it necessary to choose ONE or the OTHER as the prime symbol. Yet there is an assymetrical relationship between these. If you mix in the women, you are opting for the universal charity message and excluding the ordination message; whereas if you simply have men, as the rubrics specify, you are opting for a reenactment of what Christ did that evening at the first Mass, but you are not excluding the charity symbolism. After all, the very heart of the sacrifice of Christ was His burning charity for God and man, and this is the love the apostles, as His priests, are to carry into the world. In any case, the way the ceremony is done should not, as it were, garble the message so that one ends up severing the universal message from its original sacramental context.

Here is where the Cistercian tradition can be so helpful. Historically, these related but distinct aspects of the Holy Thursday washing of the feet were highlighted in analogous but still separate monastic ceremonies, as Terryl N. Kinder explains:
While many activities related to water took place in the gallery nearest the fountain, the mandatum was performed in the collation cloister. The weekly mandatum, or ritual washing of the feet, takes its name from the commandment of Jesus (John 13:34), which was also the text of an antiphon sung during the ceremony: “Mandatum novum . . .” (“A new commandment I give you . . .”). The ritual was a reminder of humility and also of charity toward one’s neighbors, whether those in the community or those outside. It was obviously inspired by Christ washing the feet of his disciples, and it was commonly practiced in the early church as a simple act of charity, recommended by Saint Paul (1 Tim. 5:10).
The community mandatum took place just before collation and Compline on Saturday afternoon, and, as specified in chapter 35 of the Rule of Saint Benedict, the weekly cooks—incoming and outgoing—performed the ceremony. The cooks who were leaving their week’s duty were responsible for heating the water in cold weather. The monks sat along the benches in this gallery, and the ritual began when the abbot (or cantor in the abbot’s absence) intoned the antiphon Postquam. After the abbot took off his shoes, the community followed, but as foot modesty was very important, the brothers were instructed to keep their bare feet covered at all times with their cowls. The senior (in monastic rank) of the two monks entering his week’s kitchen service washed the abbot’s feet first, while the junior incoming kitchen brother dried his feet; this pair continued washing and drying the feet of all the monks sitting to the left of the abbot. At the same time the senior of the cooks leaving his weekly service washed the feet of the brothers to the abbot’s right, the junior outgoing cook drying; the pair finishing first went to the other side to help. The cooks then washed their hands along with the vessels and towels, and everyone put their shoes back on before the collation reading began.
On Holy Thursday preceding Easter, this ceremony had a special form, the mandatum of the poor. The porter chose as many poor men from the guesthouse as there were monks in the monastery, and these men were seated in this cloister gallery. The monks left the church after None, the abbot leading and the community following in order of seniority, until each monk was standing in front of a guest. The monks then honored the poor men by washing, drying, and kissing their feet and giving each one a coin (denier) provided by the cellarer. Later the same afternoon, the community mandatum was held, and it, too, had a special form on this day. In imitation of Christ washing the feet of the twelve disciples, the abbot washed, dried, and kissed the feet of twelve members of the community: four monks, four novices, and four lay brothers. His assistants then performed this ceremony for the entire community, including all monks from the infirmary who were able to walk, and all lay brothers.
We see, then, that the activities carried out in the gallery parallel to the church were activities of a spiritual nature—much like those carried out in the church itself. In every case they emphasized the Christian life in community, whether directed inwardly to oneself (the collation reading) or, in the mandatum, shared among others. The weekly mandatum recalled the unity-in-charity of the monastic community; the Holy Thursday mandatum linked that community to Christ and his disciples; and the mandatum of the poor symbolized the responsibilities of the community to the world of poverty and suffering beyond the abbey walls.[1]
Could we not think of ways in which to imitate and adapt the monastic custom in its thoughtful distinction of the two aspects of the mandatum? Could there be a washing of the feet of (e.g.) prisoners or the elderly or the handicapped that was not embedded, misleadingly and acontextually, in the liturgical commemoration of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday? Indeed, prior to Pius XII, the washing of the feet was a separate ceremony that was never done in the context of the Maundy Thursday Mass, and, after decades of politics, we can see more clearly today the wisdom of keeping the Mass and the footwashing distinct.

It seems to me that we may be victims of a too limited imagination when it comes to the way the liturgy (and the rich symbols of the liturgy) can spill out into parish activities, outreach programs, or other domains of Catholic life. Are we trying to jam everything into the Mass? We will certainly end up making a mess of it, if that's the line of thinking we are following. Whereas if we allow the powerful deeds of Christ to sink into our consciousness, we will, like the Cistercians, develop a plethora of ways to express the inexhaustible richness of the Gospel, like streams branching off of a river.


[1] Terryl N. Kinder, Cistercian Europe: Architecture of Contemplation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans; Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2000), 136-37. To read more about how the Cistercians at Heiligenkreuz live out this practice even today, see this article by Fr. Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Durandus on Passiontide

The first of the following excerpts from William Durandus’ Rationale Divinorum Officiorum, 6.60.3-4 and 7-9, is based on St Augustine’s division of sacred history into four periods: before the giving of the law to Moses; under the law; under grace, i.e. from the Incarnation to the end of the world; and then finally, in peace, after the Lord’s Second Coming.
The reasons for which the Lord’s Passion is remembered for two weeks before Easter are these: first, because He himself suffered for two peoples, at the hands of two peoples; second, because through those two weeks, we express the two Testaments, the Old, which foretold that the Lord would suffer, and the New, which showed Him suffering; third, because in the two ages of this world, that is, before the Law and under the Law, that same passion was foretold; fourth, so that these two weeks may recall to our memory the murmuring of those who before the law and under the law were in hell (i.e., the Limbo of the Fathers, whose murmuring expresses their longing for Christ), until the time of grace, which is signified in the third week, that is the week of Easter. For from this day, on which “Glory be to the Father...” is omitted, there are two weeks until Easter. But then there is the third week, in which all the glorification that was omitted is restored, for in the third time, which is under grace, all the benefits which our fathers in the Church awaited are rendered to them.
The Harrowing of Hell, depicted in an early 16th-century illuminated manuscript of the history of the Passion in French, known as the Vaux Passional. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.  
Now for this reason, “Glory be to the Father...” is omitted, since that verse pertains to the praise of the Trinity, which was dishonored in the Lord’s Passion... for it is clear that Christ, who is the second person of the Trinity, was dishonored. But in the Resurrection, “Glory be to the Father...” is resumed, because through the Resurrection He was glorified with the glory of immortality. ...
(The partial omission of the doxology in Passiontide represents the events leading up to the Lord’s passion, principally, the plotting against Him, while the total omission represents the Passion itself.)
And we should note that it is not said in the introits and responsories, which are about the Passion, and in “Come, let us exult unto the Lord” (the invitatory psalm of the Divine Office), but not in the psalms or hymns, because the psalms symbolize working; but (thus far), they persecuted Him only in their tongues (i.e., in word, but not yet in deed), discussing His murder, and He himself did not cease to do good works. It is therefore not completely omitted... since it was not immediately after the council which they held concerning His murder that the Lamb was handed over to the hands of the wicked.
But in the three days before Easter, it is omitted completely, since then especially was the Trinity dishonored. ...
Now the Introit because from the Lord’s prayer in the Passion, “Judge me, o God, and discern my cause,” etc., For in this He instructs us in prayer. There follows, “Send forth Thy light” etc., for he that sees the rewards is made strong in the fight; “and Thy truth”, for he that sees good things, is easily led unto the eternal dwelling places. And it is of the fourth tone because of the form of the Cross, or because of the four things that are asked for, namely, judgement, discretion, liberation and strength.
Now the Epistle (Hebr. 9, 11-15), “Christ, being a high priest of the good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle” ...  shows the efficacy of Christ’s Passion. For through His passion, we are led unto the eternal dwelling places, of which we must be mindful.
... But the Postcommunion is “This is (My) Body” etc., and the priest intones it, to show that the Great Priest changed the old sacrifice into the new; and it is in the eighth tone, because that sacrifice is the true one which will be perfected in Paradise, when we will rise (i.e. on the eighth day) ...
“This is (My) Body, which shall be given up for you: this is the cup of the new covenant in My Blood, says the Lord; do this, as often as you receive it, in remembrance of Me.” (1 Cor. 11, 24-25)

Saturday, March 25, 2023

The Feast of the Annunciation 2023

Truly it is fitting and just, right and profitable to salvation that we give Thee thanks always and everywhere, Lord, Holy Father, almighty and eternal God: Who through the child-bearing of the Blessed Virgin Mary didst grant to Thy church to celebrate a wondrous mystery, and a sacrament beyond telling; in Whom chastity abideth intact, honor undiminished, and constancy steadfast; Who rejoiceth that as a virgin She conceived, that in Her chaste womb she bore the Lord of heaven, that as a virgin she brought forth a Child. O the wondrous working of the divine economy! She that knew not man is both a mother, and after her Son, a virgin. For in two gifts did she delight: she wonders that as a Virgin She gave birth, and rejoices that She brought forth the redeemer of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ. Through whom the Angels praise Thy majesty... (A preface for the feast of the Annunciation, found in many ancient Roman sacramentaries.)

From the Hitda Codex, ca. 1000 (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons)
Vere dignum et justum est, aequum et salutáre, nos tibi semper et ubíque gratias ágere, Dómine, sancte Pater, omnípotens aeterne Deus: Qui per beatae Mariae Virginis partum Ecclesiae tuae tribuisti celebrare mirabile mysterium, et inenarrabile sacramentum; in qua manet intacta castitas, pudor integer, firma constantia; quae laetatur, quod virgo concepit, quod caeli Dominum castis portavit visceribus, quod virgo edidit partum. O admirandam divinae dispensationis operationem! quae virum non cognovit, et mater est, et post filium virgo est. Duobus enim gavisa est muneribus: miratur quod virgo peperit, laetatur quod redemptorem mundi edidit Jesum Christum dominum nostrum. Per quem maiestatem tuam laudant Angeli...

Photopost Request: Passiontide Veils 2023

Our next photopost series will be of your churches with the Crosses, statues and paintings veiled for Passiontide. Please send your pictures to for inclusion; remember to give us the name and location of the church, and always feel free to add any other information you think important. It’s not a bad idea to include a shot or two of the church before the veils are put up. We will also be glad to include any pictures of rose-colored vestments on Laetare Sunday, celebrations of the feast of St Joseph, or today’s feast of the Annunciation.

This has consistently been one of our most popular photopost series; last year, we made three separate posts, with nearly 90 photographs from nearly 30 different churches around the world. As usual, here is a bit of retrospective.
From the first post: the high altar of Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini, the FSSP church in Rome.
From the second post: a private chapel.
From the third post: veiling the Cross at the church of St Dominic and Shrine of the Most Holy Rosary, the Dominican church in London, England.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Lady Day

Leonardo da Vinci, Annunciation, ca. 1472

In the liturgy, the Church takes the season of Lent seriously: there are fewer saints’ feast days around this time of year, and the ones that do exist are on occasion trumped by a ferial day of Lent or at least required to include a Lenten commemoration. The daily instruction, prayer, and mortification of this holy season purify the faithful of bad habits and attachments that may have crept in during the past year and help them prepare for the great feast of Easter. And yet the Roman Rite also takes a small hiatus from this important period of preparation every March 25 to celebrate. And when that date falls either in Holy Week or Easter Week, the celebration is moved to the first Monday after the Easter Octave rather than be suppressed or accorded secondary status. For the Church cannot help but want to celebrate the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary all on its own. [1]

The feast of the Annunciation commemorates the events recorded in Luke 1, 26-38, when the archangel Gabriel announced to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she was to be the Mother of God. It is easy to see why this feast was so zealously kept. First, it marks the beginning of the end of Satan’s rule over mankind. Just as the first Eve’s no to God led to our slavery under sin, the New Eve’s yes or fiat to God opens the way to our salvation. [2] As Pope Benedict XVI put it so beautifully, the Annunciation is a veritable wedding between God and us, thanks to Mary.
This scene is perhaps the pivotal moment in the history of God’s relationship with his people. During the Old Testament, God revealed himself partially, gradually, as we all do in our personal relationships. It took time for the Chosen People to develop their relationship with God. The Covenant with Israel was like a period of courtship, a long engagement. Then came the definitive moment, the moment of marriage, the establishment of a new and everlasting covenant. As Mary stood before the Lord, she represented the whole of humanity. In the angel’s message, it was as if God made a marriage proposal to the human race. And in our name, Mary said yes. [3]
As a sidenote, the Qur’an also contains an account of the Annunciation, but it conspicuously omits any reference to Mary’s consent. That God should in some sense depend on the collaboration of a young girl for the execution of His plan to save the world is, it would appear, unthinkable in Islam: it sounds like a compromise of Allah’s almighty will. Yet the Christian Gospels exult in God’s humbling Himself, and that humility includes stooping to cooperate lovingly with His lowly creatures. As C.S. Lewis puts it in the Screwtape Letters, our God “cannot ravish. He can only woo.” [4]
Second, just as the Annunciation is a kind of wedding between God and man, it is also a kind of wedding between Mary and the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity. The Mother of God is hailed as the Spouse of the Holy Spirit because on this day the power of the Holy Ghost overshadowed her. (see Luke 1, 35)
Third, Mary’s interaction with Saint Gabriel serves as a model of Christian discipleship. When the angel appears to her, she is understandably afraid: angelic visits in the Bible are often terrifying events, at least after the angel reveals himself. (see Tobias 12, 15-22) However, the Blessed Virgin quickly regains her courage and, after Gabriel tells her God’s plan for her to be the mother of the Son of the Most High, she asks him a question: “How shall this be done, because I know not man?” Mary’s cousin-in-law Saint Zechariah also asked a question when he was visited by Saint Gabriel and was told that he would be the father of Saint John the Baptist, but his question arose from doubt. “Whereby shall I know this?” he asked. “For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” (Luke 1, 18). And in punishment for his doubt, he is struck dumb for nine months. The Blessed Virgin’s question, by contrast, arises not from doubt but from a combination of trust and inquiry. I believe you, she is essentially saying, and as a result I would like to know more specifically how the plan is going to be executed. Gabriel approves of her question and rewards her with an honest answer. Mary’s inquisitiveness is a model of fides quaerens intellectum, of faith seeking understanding, and an illustration of Saint John Henry Newman’s remark that a thousand questions do not add up to a single doubt. Mary’s response to the angel’s explanation, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word,” (Luke 1, 38) is a model of obedience and faith for all Christians.
Saint Gabriel the Archangel
Fourth, the Annunciation highlights Mary’s unique rank and status in salvation history. When the angel Gabriel addresses her, he uses the Greek word Khaire (Ave in Latin), a salutation that is only used for one’s superiors. Here is an angel, a magnificent spiritual creature, speaking to a lowly fifteen year-old girl as his superior. Never does such a thing happen in the Bible, and from it comes the Catholic tradition of praising Mary as Queen of the Angels and Queen of Heaven, for if she is higher than the angels, she is their queen, and if she is queen of the angels she is Queen of Heaven. Mary herself understands the astonishing implications of this greeting, which is why “she was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be.” (Luke 1, 29)
Fifth, the Annunciation is, along with Christmas, a great feast of the Incarnation. This is the day that, for the first time in history, that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity united Himself to our humanity by humbly becoming a zygote, a single eukaryotic cell, in Our Lady’s womb. This is the day that the Word first became flesh and dwelt among us, (see John 1, 14) and the place where He first chose to dwell—or to translate the original Greek more literally, to pitch His tent—was within this maiden of Nazareth, making her a holy tabernacle and a new and truer Ark of the Covenant. This is the day, as the Maronite liturgy proclaims, that “the peace of God is planted, and the heights and depths cry out: ‘O come, Lord Jesus!’ ” [5]
Holman Bible, Blowing the Trumpet at the Feast of Rosh Chodesh
Sixth, Saint Thomas Aquinas notes how the “solemnities of the Old Law are supplanted by new solemnities” in the Christian liturgical year. The Feast of the Annunciation, he argues, is a fitting replacement of the monthly feast of the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh), for it is with the Annunciation that there “appeared the first rays of the sun, i.e. Christ, by the fulness of grace.” [6] Thomas’ contrast between the new moon and the rising sun is curious, but there is another possible connection between Rosh Chodesh and the Annunciation: both celebrate woman’s fidelity to God. According to a tradition found in the Midrash, Jewish women are forbidden to engage in servile work on Rosh Chodesh because God is rewarding them for having been unwilling to give the Hebrew men in the wilderness their earrings when they realized that their men wanted to make an idolatrous image “without any power in it to deliver.” [7]
The icon of Annunciation from the Church of St Climent in Ohrid, R. o. Macedonia, 14th century
The Annunciation is one of the oldest festivities on the Church calendar, but it was not always primarily Marian: indeed, in the Byzantine Rite it is still considered a celebration of the Incarnation of Our Lord and one of the eight great feasts honoring Jesus Christ rather than one of the four great feasts honoring His Mother. It began in the East as early as the fourth century and migrated West, where it was known as the Feast of the Incarnation, the Beginning of Redemption, the Conception of Christ, the Annunciation of Christ, and the Lord’s Annunciation. In 656, the Council of Toledo described it as already well-established and universally observed, and in 692 the Trullan Synod (aka the Council of Constantinople in Trullo) upheld an Eastern custom when it forbade the celebration of the Eucharist during Lent except on “the Sabbath, the Lord’s Day, and the holy day of the Annunciation” (canon 52). To this day, the very strict Greek Orthodox fast permits fish during Lent on only two days: The Annunciation and Palm Sunday.
For the Roman Rite, Pope St Sergius I in 701 prescribed a penitential procession with candles for the feasts of the Purification, Annunciation, Assumption, and Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. [8] Over time, however, the procession was retained only for Candlemas.
The feast appears in our second and third oldest liturgical books of the West, the eighth-century “Gelasian Sacramentary” and the ninth-century “Gregorian Sacramentary.” For centuries it was a holy day of obligation. That obligation was first lifted in France in 1802 and in the United States by the Third Council of Baltimore in 1884; it was then abrogated altogether in the 1917 Code of Canon Law.
Octaves are forbidden during Lent, but some communities observed one for the Annunciation anyway: the Dioceses of Loreto and of the Province of Venice, along with the Carmelites, Dominicans, Servites, and Redemptorists. The propers of the Annunciation in the 1962 Missal artfully combine the many reasons for rejoicing already mentioned in the section on “Significance.” The Gospel is Luke’s account of the Annunciation, while the lesson from Isaiah 7, 10-15 contains the famous prophecy: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and His name shall be called Emmanuel.” (This is repeated as the Communion Verse). The Gradual and Tract allude to God’s “wooing” of the Blessed Virgin with verses like “The King hath greatly desired thy beauty” (Ps. 44, 11), while the Paschal Alleluia celebrates the feast’s Incarnational dimension: “God hath given peace, reconciling the lowest with the highest in Himself.” The Angelic Salutation (which forms the opening of the “Hail Mary”) is the Offertory Verse, while the Introit contains the momentous verse, “My heart hath uttered a good word” (Ps. 44, 2).
Fra Angelico, Annunciation, 1437-46
The orations are also rich in meaning. While the Collect focuses on the Incarnation happening at the message of an angel, the Secret and Postcommunion connect the Annunciation to the Paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection (the Postcommunion is the prayer used at the end of the Angelus). Finally, the Magnificat Antiphon for First Vespers focuses on the role of the Holy Spirit in coming down upon Mary and overshadowing her.
A Potent Date
In the Roman and Byzantine Rites, the feast of the Annunciation has always been held on March 25. In A.D. 240, an author known only as Pseudo-Cyprian argued in his De Pascha Computus that both Our Lord’s coming and His death must have coincided with the sixth day of Creation, when Adam was created and fell. And since the world was created in springtime, Jesus Christ must have been conceived and killed shortly after the vernal equinox. Regardless of the soundness of Pseudo-Cyprian’s logic, it was widely believed by the time of Saint Augustine that Our Lord was conceived and suffered on March 25. [10] Later speculations were even more fantastic. March 25, it was opined, was the date of:
  1. The fall of Lucifer
  2. The creation of the world
  3. The creation and fall of Adam
  4. The sacrifice of Isaac
  5. The crossing of the Israelites through the Red Sea
  6. The conception of Our Lord
  7. The crucifixion of Our Lord
  8. The Last Judgment
Of all of these, the conception of Our Lord fits in best with the rest of the liturgical year. It was already believed in the fourth century that Our Lord was born on December 25, and March 25 is nine months prior. The angel Gabriel also told Mary that her cousin Saint Elizabeth had been with child for six months, and June 24 (three months later) would become the Feast of Saint John the Baptist.
For centuries, the feast of the Annunciation was a day of leisure. In 1240, a Synod in Worcester, England forbade servile work on “Lady Day,” as it was once known in England, and the universal Church was not far behind. The prohibition of servile work in the Western Church was kept from the late Middle Ages until the promulgation of the 1917 Code of Canon Law. [11]
Dramatic readings and reenactments were once a part of the festivities. In some cathedrals of Europe, a “Golden Mass” would be celebrated in which deacons would chant the parts of the narrator, angel, and Mary, not unlike the chanting of the Passion narrative during Holy Week. In western Germany, churches that had a “Holy Ghost Hole” (an opening in the roof above the sanctuary through which flaming straws on Pentecost were thrown down) went one step further. A boy dressed as Saint Gabriel would be lowered through the hole and address another young actor playing Mary below. As the children in the congregation looked up in awe, their mothers would surreptitiously place cookies or candy on the pew benches, allowing them to believe that Gabriel’s heavenly companions put them there. [12]
Holy Ghost Hole of the Schanz Chapel in Ebbs, Tyrol, Austria, 18th century
Other locales preferred grand processions. In Rome near the end of the medieval period, six black horses would draw an ornately decorated carriage bearing an image of Our Lady from Saint Peter’s Basilica to Santa Maria della Minerva. The Pope then celebrated a Pontifical High Mass there and afterwards distributed fifty gold pieces each to three hundred deserving poor maidens so that they could obtain an honorable marriage (odd that he did not do this on the feast of Saint Nicholas, but it’s the thought that counts). Other parts of Europe held more modest processions in which a choirboy impersonating the Blessed Virgin would be led through the church and churchyard.
In medieval England, the proximity to the vernal equinox made the Feast of the Annunciation one of the year’s four quarter days, when servants would be hired, school terms begun, and rents due. The other three quarter days were Midsummer Day (June 24), Michaelmas (September 29), and Christmas (December 25).
Apropos of the old liturgical title “The Beginning of Redemption” and perhaps influenced by the legend that March 25 was one of the days of Creation, when Dionysius Exiguus designed the Anno Domini calendar in A.D. 525, he made the beginning of the year March 25. The Vatican curia used to treat the day as the beginning of the legal year (as opposed to the civic year on January 1). Most civil governments picked up the custom, and some—like England until 1752—retained it even after the Reformation.
The anniversary of the Blessed Mother’s new motherhood, combined with the advent of Spring, led to several local fertility customs. In central Europe farmers placed an image of the Annunciation on a barrel of seed grain and recited something like this:
O Mary, Mother, we pray to you;
Your life today with fruit was blessed:
Give us the happy promise, too,
That our harvest will be of the best.
If you protect and bless the field,
A hundredfold each grain must yield.
The next day they began planting, confident in the verse:
Saint Gabriel to Mary flies;
This is the end of snow and ice.
In Russia blessed wafers of wheat were distributed by the priest after the Divine Liturgy. The father of the house took them home and gave them to his family and servants, who received them with a deep bow and ate them in silence. Leftover “Annunciation bread” would be buried in the fields as protection against frost, hail, blight, and drought. [13]
Theodorus Vryzakis, Epanastasi, 1865
March 25 is Greek Independence Day. In 1821, at the monastery of Agia Lavra, Bishop Germanos of Patras raised the Greek flag and incited a war for independence against the Ottoman Empire. Since the bishop raised the flag in late March but no one is certain on exactly what day, the commemoration of the event was combined with the great feast of the Annunciation. March 25 is also a national holiday in Lebanon, where it is observed by both Christians and Muslims.
The Annunciation has come to take on new meaning in light of the Culture of Death. In 1993, El Salvador declared March 25 the Day of the Right to Be Born. Years later other countries followed suit: Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Paraguay, the Philippines, Honduras, Ecuador and, most recently, Puerto Rico. Pope Saint John Paul II, who was active in promoting the new observance, wrote: “I express my best wishes that the celebration of ‘The Day of the Unborn Child’ will favor a positive choice in favor of life and the development of a culture in this direction which will assure the promotion of human dignity in every situation.” [14]
Lady Day was also a time of charming folklore. Swallows are said to return to Europe from their migration on this day, according to the Austrian rhyme:
When Gabriel does the message bring
Return the swallows, comes the Spring.
The swallows’ return on Lady Day has served them well, elevating their status in the pious mind. In Austria and Germany they are called “Mary’s birds” and in Hungary “God’s birds.” No farmer would ever kill swallows or destroy their nests out of respect for the Blessed Virgin. In central Europe a popular name for the Annunciation is “Feast of Swallows.”
Stan Shebs, Madonna lily, 2005
Others showed their piety with flowers. According to legend, the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) first grew from the tears of Eve after her expulsion from Paradise, but it was turned white when Mary touched the lily that was being held in the angel Gabriel’s hand. (Artwork depicting the Annunciation frequently shows Gabriel holding a lily.) The Venerable Bede (673–735), a learned Benedictine monk, tells us why the Madonna lily is a fitting symbol of the Virgin:
the white petals [signify] her bodily purity, the golden anthers the glowing light of her soul.[16]
Indeed, the “lily among thorns” mentioned in the Song of Songs (2, 2) was thought by some to be the Madonna lily.
Marigolds or “Mary’s gold” are named after Our Lady because of the old legend that during the flight into Egypt a gang of robbers took Mary’s purse; when they opened it, marigolds fell out. (Perhaps as a result of this story there developed the custom of placing marigolds instead of coins around statues of Mary). Marigolds (calendula) may have also taken on a Marian association because they were in bloom during virtually all the feast days of the Blessed Virgin. Whatever the connection, the flowers were especially popular on the Feast of the Annunciation, when they would be twined into garlands and used to decorate the church.
“We are in the very midst of Lent, and yet the ineffable joys of Christmas are upon us!” writes Dom Guéranger. “We must spend it in joy. Whilst we adore the Son of God who humbled Himself by thus becoming Man, let us give thanks to the Father who so loved the world as to give His only-begotten Son; let us give thanks to the Holy Ghost whose almighty power achieves the great mystery.” [17] And let us give thanks to Our Lady’s yes, who in one word changed the world when she agreed to bring the Word into the world.
An earlier version of this article appeared under the same time in The Latin Mass magazine 30:1 (Winter/Spring 2021), pp. 54-59. Many thanks to its editor for allowing its publication here.

[1] I say “all on its own” because the 1962 Missal also celebrates the Annunciation on the Ember Wednesday of Advent but as a preparation for Christmas.
[2] See Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 5.19.1.
[3] “On God’s Marriage Proposal,” Angelus address at the 2008 World Youth Day Closing Mass, Zenit News, July 19, 2008,
[4] See Jacob Imam, “Not Merely Islam,” Touchstone Magazine,
[5] The Book of Offering to the Rite of the Antiochene Syriac Maronite Church (2012), 28. 
[6] Summa Theologiae 4. 
[7] Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer: The Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer the Great According to the Text of the Manuscript Belonging to Abraham Epstein of Vienna, trans. Gerald Friedlander (Hermon Press, 1965), 53-54.
[8] Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1958), 207.
[9] Frederick Holweck, “The Feast of the Annunciation,” Catholic Encyclopedia (1907),
[10] See On the Trinity 4.5.9.
[11] See Weiser, 301-2.
[12] Weiser, 303.
[13] Weiser, 304.
[15] See Weiser, 302-3.
[16] See Vincenzina Krymow, Mary’s Flowers (Saint Anthony Messenger Press, 1999), 28.
[17] The Liturgical Year, vol. 5, trans. Laurence Shepherd (Saint Bonaventure Publications, 200), 454.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: