Sunday, December 31, 2023

The Legend of Pope St Silvester I

The Caelian hill in Rome is the site of a very ancient basilica dedicated to the Four Crowned Martyrs; within the complex that surrounds it is preserved an extraordinary gem of medieval art, a chapel dedicated to Pope St Silvester I (314-35), whose feast has been kept on this day since the fourth century. (All images from the relevant page of Wikimedia Commons, by Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0.)
This chapel was built in 1246, for a very particular purpose determined by the proximity of the Four Crowned Martyrs to the Pope’s cathedral, St John in the Lateran, where Papal elections were traditionally held in the Middle Ages. In the 12th century, the Church was very much caught up in the Investiture Controversy, the struggle to free itself from the control of the secular power, and particularly, of the German Holy Roman Emperors; and for most of the century, there was an antipope who took the Emperors’ side. A crucial figure in this long controversy, Pope Alexander III (1159-81), was, like Silvester I, one of the longest reigning Popes of all time, but was unable for most of his reign to enter Rome, which was held by the antipopes with the Emperor’s support. After an agreement was reached between the two sides towards the end of Alexander’s reign, and solidified by the Third General Council of the Lateran in 1179, the conflict was most unhappily renewed in the first part of the 13th century under the Emperor Frederick II.

The chapel of St Silvester was therefore built so that, if the Lateran itself should be occupied by the Emperor, the cardinals would be able to barricade themselves within the fortress-like complex around the basilica of the Four Crowned Martyrs a short distance away, and elect a Pope without outside interference. The program of the frescoes which decorate its walls is very much intended to speak to this potential role of the chapel as the site of a Papal election, and to remind the cardinals that the candidate they should be supporting is the one who will defend the liberty of the Church, which the civil power has no right to usurp. (In the end, however, the chapel was never used for this purpose.)
The cycle begins on the back wall, with the first of several episodes from the life of Constantine, whom the medieval Papacy (mostly with good reason) held up as an ideal emperor because he gave the Church freedom and a great deal of material support, but largely left it alone to manage its own internal affairs. According to the common legend, he suffered from leprosy, which his doctors told him could only be cured by bathing in the blood of young children. (Ancient Roman medical practice had much to do with what anthropologists call sympathetic magic, and the idea that a doctor in antiquity might prescribe such an awful remedy is not per se absurd.) Notice how the faces in the crowd of mothers are all basically the same, and there is only a hint of using their expression to convey their distress at the proposed massacre. Artworks of this kind became very unfashionable in the Renaissance, which sought to differentiate faces in groups more realistically, and use facial expressions to convey emotion.
Constantine (who, like all good monarchs, sleeps in full regalia and wearing a crown), has a dream in which the Apostles Peter and Paul appear to him, and tell him not to kill the children, but rather to seek out the Christian bishop of Rome, who will cure him. (Notice that the decorative pattern on Constantine’s robe passes through the space delineated by it without conforming to the folds of the cloth, another classic feature of medieval art on which the Renaissance will seek to improve.)

Constantine’s emissaries (who are taller than their horses) ride out to seek Pope Silvester...

and find him (after turning the corner of the wall) on Mt Soracte to the north of Rome, hiding with other members of the clergy from the ongoing persecution of the Church. (Note the sideways treetop in the background.)

The First Anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s Death

Deus, qui inter summos sacerdótes fámulum tuum Benedictum ineffábili tua dispositióne connumerári voluisti: praesta, quáesumus; ut, qui Unigéniti Filii tui vices in terris gerébat, sanctórum tuórum Pontíficum consortio perpétuo aggregétur. Per eundem Christum, Dóminum nostrum. Amen.

God, Who in Thy ineffable providence, did will that Thy servant Benedict should be numbered among the high priests, grant, we beseech Thee, that he, who on earth held the place of Thine Only-begotten Son, may be joined forevermore to the fellowship of Thy holy pontiffs. Through the same Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

As we pray for the eternal repose of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, who died one year ago today, let us also remember with gratitude the gift of his papacy, his graciousness and good humor, his many wise and well-considered writings, his paternal love especially for priests and religious, but of course above all, his restoration to the Church of the incomparable treasure of the traditional Roman Rite, an act which will continue to bear great spiritual fruit and lead the way for much-needed reform. “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”
Joseph Ratzinger serving an open-air solemn Mass in the town of Buchfelln in 1947, when he was 20. Tradition will always be for the young!

Saturday, December 30, 2023

The Life of Christ in a 5th Century Ivory Diptych

Among the many artistic treasures preserved in the cathedral museum of Milan, one of the most ancient is an ivory diptych produced in northern Italy, very likely at Ravenna, in the later 5th century. It is known as the Diptych of the Five Parts, since each of the two panels is assembled out of five separately carved pieces. The events of Our Lord’s life which are celebrated in the current liturgical season are particularly prominent on the large panels at the top and bottom of both sides; this is generally understood as an assertion, in the light of the Christological controversies of the 5th century, as an assertion of the fullness of Christ’s humanity united to the divinity in the Incarnation. Thanks to Nicola for sharing these pictures with us. Beneath the photos of the diptych, I have included two others of a very beautiful cover for a Gospel book, made in the early 11th century.

The upper panel of the front side: the Nativity of Christ, with two symbols of the Evangelists to either side, Matthew and Luke, who give the genealogies of Christ. St Joseph is dressed as a Roman shepherd, but holds a carpenter’s saw. 
The Massacre of the Holy Innocents, with the evangelists themselves to either side.
The upper part of the left panel shows an episode from an apocryphal Gospel, in which an angel comes to the Virgin Mary as she draws water at a well before the Annunciation: below it are depicted the three Magi, pointing to the star of the Nativity, and below that, the Baptism of Christ. 
It is not certain which episode is depicted on the upper section of the right panel, either the Presentation of the Virgin in the temple, or an episode from another apocryphal Gospel, in which She is subjected to an ordeal to prove Her innocence after She is found to be pregnant. Beneath it are shown the twelve-year-old Christ in the temple, and His entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

In the center is mounted an image of the Lamb of God made with the technique now known by the French name “cloisonné”, in which colored material of various kinds (here gemstones, but in many other examples, colored enamel) are set between metal wires (here gold.) This technique is very ancient, with examples dating back as far as the 12th century BC, but examples in early Christian art are extremely rare, much less ones as well preserved as this. 

New Year’s Eve Customs

New Year’s Eve sketch, Marguerite Marty
Topsy-Turvy Twelve Days of Christmas, Part III

New Year’s Eve has been an occasion for merry-making (and worse) ever since the Roman festival of the Kalendae Januarii. The early Christian Church was opposed to the pagan proclivity for excess and instead kept January 1 as a day of fasting and penance. To this day, as far as the Church year is concerned, the start of the civic year is a non-event.

Nevertheless, because it is only natural to mark the end of an old year and the beginning of a new one, and because it is a good idea to ask God’s blessings on the future, Christians eventually incorporated aspects of the Roman new year, and added a few of their own.
St. Sylvester was Supreme Pontiff during the reign of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who ended the persecution of the Church. One legend even claims that Sylvester baptized Constantine after the latter was miraculously cured from leprosy. There is a simple reason why the saint’s feast falls on this day: after twenty-one years of service to God as Pope, Sylvester died and was buried on December 31, 335. That said, there is something appropriate about preparing for the new civic year with the first Bishop of Rome to assume the throne of Peter during a time of civic peace, since the time when our hearts are filled with hope for “peace on earth.”
Pope St. Sylvester and the Emperor Constantine
Sylvester’s feast is so closely tied to December 31 that in many countries New Year’s Eve is known as Sylvester Night (Silvesterabend or Silvesternacht in German).
In France and French Canada, it is traditional for the father to bless the members of his family and for the children to thank their parents for all of their love and care. In central Europe, a pre-Christian ritual of scaring away demons with loud noises was retained; from this is derived our custom of fireworks and artillery salutes in welcome of the new year. In Austria, December 31 was sometimes called Rauchnacht or “Incense night,” when the paterfamilias went through the house and barn purifying them with incense and holy water.
And speaking of luck, Sylvester Night was a favorite occasion for attempts to peer into the upcoming year. The reading of tea leaves was once popular, as was pouring spoonfuls of molten lead into water and interpreting the future from the shapes it took. Young maidens prayed to St. Sylvester in traditional rhymes, asking him for a good husband and hoping through his intercession to catch a glimpse of Mr. Right in their dreams or in the reflection of a mirror.
Religious Services
On the more pious side of things were vigil services of various kinds thanking God for the gifts of the year and seeking blessings for the new. To this day, the Catholic Church grants a plenary indulgence, under the usual conditions, for a public recitation of the great Latin hymn of thanksgiving, the Te Deum, on the last day of the year, and a partial indulgence “is granted to those who recite the Te Deum in thanksgiving.”
A century ago in England and Scotland, the night was marked by penitential “Watch Night” services, which could consist of testimonies from members of the congregation about God’s blessings during the year or the making of good resolutions. Several denominations have a tradition of Watch Night services, especially among black Americans. It is said that slaves gathered in their churches on the night of December 31, 1862 to wait for Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to take effect the next day. Ever since then, Watch Night services have been popular in black churches.
Auld Lang Syne
The Scottish celebrate New Year’s Eve with zest. The (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland had suppressed Christmas in that land, and so all of the Scots’ pent-up desire for celebration was redirected to the New Year. Even after Christmas celebrations made a comeback in the mid-twentieth century, the so-called “Daft Days” – New Year’s Eve (“Hogmanay”) and New Year’s Day (“Ne’er Day”) – are considered the Scottish national holiday and the “chief of all festivals.”
One of the Scottish customs to catch on elsewhere is the signing of Auld Lang Syne at the beginning of the new year. In 1788 the great poet Robert Burns took an old Scottish folk song and adapted it, describing the poem as “an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.” Some of the lines predate Burns, but the finished product is uniquely his. The standard English version is written as:
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
For those unfamiliar with Scots language, the meaning can be cryptic. “Auld lang syne” is the Scots spelling of “old long since,” and in the poem it functions as “for the sake of old times.” The song is popular not only on New Year’s Eve but also at funerals, graduations, and other farewell events.
Times Square, New Year’s Eve, 1999-2000
The Countdown
The Scottish also had a fondness for gathering before a public clock or bell tower and celebrating at the stroke of midnight. In Edinburgh all eyes were on the lighted clock-face of Auld and Faithful Tron (Church), while in London displaced Scots were attuned to the midnight chime of St. Paul’s Cathedral. 
The Scottish were not alone in taking advantage of modern time-keeping devices. In Spain and other Spanish-speaking areas it was considered good luck to eat twelve grapes at the twelve strokes of midnight. In Austria, krapfen, apricot-jam doughnuts, are traditionally eaten when the clock strikes twelve on New Year’s Eve. In Greece, the father steps outside at midnight and smashes a pomegranate for good luck. He then cuts the St. Basil cake or Vasilopita: the first piece is dedicated to Jesus Christ and the second to the Church, while additional pieces are for absent loved ones. Finally, those present each get a piece, beginning with the oldest. Even the baby must have some to ensure good luck for the new year. And the person who gets the piece with the coin in it is guaranteed good fortune. 
One custom familiar to most Americans is the ball drop in New York City’s Times Square. After The New York Times moved into the new building on One Times Square, the newspaper promoted its new headquarters with a fireworks display on December 31, 1904. The event attracted 20,000 spectators, and so the Times repeated the event in 1905 and 1906. For the 1907 celebration, Times owner Adolph Ochs decided to take advantage of the rather recently harnessed power of electricity with 100 incandescent light bulbs adorning a ball made out of wood and iron that was lowered down the building’s flagpole at 11:59 p.m. The ball drop has taken place every year since except 1942 and 1943 (wartime blackouts), even though the Times moved out of One Times Square in 1913. Today the ball is illuminated by a computerized LED lighting system and ceremonially lit by a special guest as the mayor of New York City stands nearby. The ball drop is accompanied by musical performances and attracts extensive TV coverage and over 1,000,000 spectators each year. It has also inspired copycats across the world.

Michael Foley is the author of Why We Kiss under the Mistletoe: Christmas Traditions Explained (Regnery, 2022).

Friday, December 29, 2023

The Sacristy of the Cathedral of Toledo

Our series on the cathedral of Toledo concludes with pictures of the sacristy, which is full of artworks and magnificent liturgical furnishings, including several paintings by El Greco, as well as Goya, Titian, Raphael, Velasquez, Caravaggio and Van Dijk among others. The first part of this series showed the cathedral itself, and the second part covered the cloister and chapter house.   

The sacristy was built in the later 17th century, and decorated by the Neapolitan artist Luca Giordano (1634-1705), who worked for ten years (1692-1702) as chief painter of the Spanish court. The enormous fresco on the ceiling depicts the clothing of St Ildephonsus with a chasuble which, according to an ancient legend, was given to him by the Virgin Mary as a reward for writing a treatise in defense of her perpetual virginity.

The altarpiece of the sacristy altar, the Despoliation of Christ, is one of a series of paintings made for the cathedral by El Greco (1541-1614), which also includes portraits of the Twelve Apostles, and an image of Our Lord as Pantocrator.

St Peter
St Paul

The Orations of the Sunday after Christmas

The Nativity, by Lorenzo Monaco (ca. 1406-10) 
Lost in Translation #87

The Mass for the Sunday within the Octave of the Nativity (which no longer exists in the new rite) is significant for two reasons. First, as the only Sunday within the Christmas Octave, attention is implicitly drawn to its dominical character. According to an ancient tradition, Our Lord was born on a Sunday, and so on those years when December 25 does not fall on a Sunday, it is left to the Sunday after Christmas to honor the connection between the Lord’s Day and His Nativity. Second, thanks to the Epistle reading, (Gal. 4, 1-7) which includes the following verses, the Mass celebrates our divine adoption:

But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, that He might redeem them who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because you are sons, God hath sent the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying: “Abba,” Father. Therefore now he is not a servant, but a son: and if a son, an heir also through God.
Although the theme of divine adoption appears several times throughout the liturgical year, this is its first and perhaps most important appearance, for it clearly establishes the link between the meaning of Christmas (the Incarnation) and its purpose (our supernatural adoption). Commenting on this passage, Dom Guéranger offers the colorful image of the Holy Infant turning heavenward and saying “My Father!” and then turning to us and saying “My brethren!” Guéranger continues:
This is the mystery of adoption, revealed to us by the great event we are solemnizing. All things are changed, both in heaven and on earth: God has not only one Son, He has many sons; henceforth we stand before this our God, not merely creatures drawn out of nothing by His power but children that He fondly loves. [1]
Similarly, the Gospel reading for this Sunday is Luke 2, 33-44, which recounts part of the story of the Presentation in the Temple. Significantly, the Presentation is never mentioned; instead, the reading is framed by the wonder that Mary and Joseph experience at the things that are said of Jesus (2, 33) and by the grace of God that was in Jesus (2, 44). The result is a focus on the marvelous identity of the God-Man rather than the specific mystery of the Presentation, which is celebrated instead on the feast of the Purification (February 2). The Gospel does, however, mention how a “sword” shall pierce the heart of Mary (2, 35). This sorrowful note in the midst of jubilation is not meant to make us morose but to supplement the teaching of the Epistle by identifying the price of our adoption. For “the mystery of man’s adoption by God,” Guéranger explains, “is to cost this Child of hers His life!” [2]

The doctrine of divine adoption is important because it lies at the center of God’s plan to redeem mankind. As Blessed Columba Marmion (who, I believe, will one day be designated the Doctor of Divine Adoption) explains, the Father out of sheer love and generosity has willed for all eternity to extend to us His Paternity, to recognize us as His sons so that we can be filled with holiness and share in His eternal happiness. Marmion stresses that although it is in accordance with our nature to call God our Creator, it is not natural for a creature to call his Creator “Father.” That privilege is the result of a purely supernatural act of adoption. “By nature God has only one Son,” Marmion observes; “by love He wills to have an innumerable multitude” (emphasis added). [3]
The Nativity of Jesus, (the Anjou Bible, folio 23)  
The Orations of what we are tempted to call Divine Adoption Sunday do not explicitly allude to this doctrine, but they can be fruitfully read as creating a profile or what good adopted sons of God look like. The Collect is:
Omnípotens sempiterne Deus, dírige actus nostros in beneplácito tuo: ut in nómine dilecti Filii tui mereámur bonis opéribus abundáre. Qui tecum vivit.
Which I translate as:
Almighty, everlasting God, direct our actions in the way of Thy good pleasure: that in the Name of Thy beloved Son we may deserve to abound in good works. Who liveth and reigneth with Tee.
The Collect appears to be influenced by Ephesians 1, where St. Paul explains our predestination as divinely adopted sons through Jesus Christ. Ephesians 1, 9 uses the relatively uncommon word “beneplacitum – good pleasure”) to describe the way in which God has made known to us the mystery of His will; the Collect uses the same word as the means through which God will guide our actions. Ephesians 1, 8 states that Christ’s grace “superabundavit – has superabounded” in us, and in the Collect we pray that we may abound in good works. In both cases, the Collect redirects the language to right action; the focus here is on doing good like our adopted brother Jesus. But we do not wish to do good for our own sake but in the Holy Name of Jesus, a Name that is much on our minds during this season. There is even a bit of suspense about the Holy Name during this Sunday after Christmas, for we know that Jesus has been born, we know that His Name is Jesus (thanks to Saint Gabriel on March 25), but He will not officially receive His Holy Name until his forthcoming circumcision on January 1.
The Holy Family, by Giorgione (1478-1510)
The Secret is:
Concéde, quǽsumus, omnípotens Deus: ut óculis tuæ majestátis munus oblátum, et gratiam nobis piæ devotiónis obtíneat, et effectum beátæ perennitátis acquírat. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
Grant, we beseech Thee, almighty God: that the gift which has been offered before the eyes of Thy majesty may obtain for us the grace of pious devotion and the effect of a blessed perennity. Through Our Lord.
This rather unusual Secret is used four times in the 1962 Missal: here, Palm Sunday, the Ember Saturday of September, and the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The Secret is rather unusual because of the final prepositional phrase, beatae perennitatis. Clearly, the intended meaning is not “blessed perennity” but “perennial blessedness”: the author has switched the adjective and the noun. Perennitas was a title of the Roman Emperors; you could address an emperor as “Your Perennity.” Perhaps, then, the author chose the word to form a parallel with the majesty of God mentioned earlier in the prayer.
The content of the prayer is less puzzling than the diction. Of special note for our purposes is the petition for pious devotion. As we explain elsewhere, pietas has a rich meaning in ecclesiastical Latin, but it is still anchored in its original meaning of a loving loyalty to one’s gods, one’s family, and one’s country. To ask for pious devotion is to ask for the grace of being a good son to the Father and a good brother to the Son.
The Postcommunion is:
Per hujus, Dómine, operatiónem mystérii, et vítia nostra purgéntur, et justa desidéria compleántur. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
By the virtue of this mystery, O Lord, may our vices be purged away and our just desires fulfilled. Through Our Lord.
In the Collect, we prayed to acquire good works or good acts; here in the Postcommunion we pray to be rid of vices. Vices (vitia) are not the same as sins, for sins are bad acts while vices are bad habits. The sacrament of penance, for example, may absolve me from the lies that I have been telling, but it does not cure me of my habit of lying. In Roman medical terminology, getting sick (morbus) was contrasted with having a defect (vitium). Most sicknesses are transitory, and most defects (like blindness or deafness) are permanent. [4] In the Epistle reading St. Paul teaches that God adopted us out of pity because we were “serving under the elements of this world,” that is, we were in a permanent state of vice.

Once purged of our vices, our remaining desires are ipso facto just, and once those desires are fulfilled, we are by definition happy. As St. Monica succinctly puts it in an early dialogue of St. Augustine: “If he wants good things and has them, he is happy; but if he wants bad things, he is unhappy, even if he has them.” [5] Freed from their enslavement to vice, God’s happy sons have just desires and total fulfillment.
[1] Dom Prosper Guéranger, OSB, The Liturgical Year, vol. 2, trans. Dom Laurence Shepherd (Great Falls, MT: St. Bonaventure Publications, 2000), 342–43.
[2] Guéranger, 2:344.
[3] Bl. Columba Marmion, Christ the Life of the Soul (Tacoma, WA: Angelico Press, 2012), 24.
[4] See Mary Pierre Ellebracht, Remarks on the Vocabulary of the Ancient Orations in the Missale Romanum (Nijmegen: Dekker & Van de Vegt, 1963), 190.
[5] St. Augustine, On the Happy Life 2.10, translation mine.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Rorate Mass Photopost 2023 (Part 6)

With the last of our annual Rorate Mass and Advent photoposts, I am very pleased to say that we have tied last year’s record for this series as far as the number of posts goes, but slightly exceeded it in the number of photos, at just over 280, coming from churches in 18 American states and 12 other countries, with many duplicates (four Canadian provinces, three locations each in England and Italy, etc.) We can all add to our other reasons for Christmas cheer the knowledge that the slow but steady work of recovering our Catholic liturgical tradition continues – feliciter!

In the meantime, there is still plenty of time to send photos of your various Christmas liturgies to; remember to include the name and location of the church, and any other information you think worth noting. Christus natus est - venite, adoremus!

Holy Spirit and Annunciation Church – Premonstratensian Abbey of Gödöllő, Hungary
Photos by Domonkos Orban-Katona
Tradition will always be for the young!

Childermas Customs

The Massacre of the Innocnent, depicted by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, ca. 1305. (Image from Wikimedia Commons © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Topsy-Turvy Twelve Days of Christmas, Part II

Previously, we looked at some of the customs surrounding the feasts of St. Stephen (December 26) and St. John (December 27), especially those with a topsy-turvy dimension. Today, we look at one of the feast of the Holy Innocents, which is more explicitly tied to social inversions and practical jokes.

In an attempt to kill Jesus, whom he thought was a rival for his crown, King Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys in Bethlehem two years old and under (Matt. 2, 16-18). St. Matthew’s Gospel does not tell us how many died in the massacre. The Byzantine liturgy mentions 14,000, the Syrian churches speak of 64,000, and some medieval authors, inspired by Revelation 14, 3, speak of a staggering 144,000. But based on fertility rates and the size of the population of Bethlehem and its environs at the time, a more realistic estimate places the number of the slain somewhere between ten and twenty.
Matthew’s account is also silent about the date of the massacre, except for hinting that it happened within two years of the apparition of the Christmas star that guided the Magis. The Western churches, from what we can tell, have always kept the feast of “Childermas” (Children’s Mass) on December 28, ever since it first began being celebrated in the fifth century. In so doing, the calendar presents an interesting array of Christ’s friends on December 26, 27, and 28: first St. Stephen, the Proto-Martyr who is a martyr by will, love, and blood; then St. John the Evangelist, who is a martyr by will and love (John is considered a martyr because of the attempts made on his life even though he died a natural death); and lastly, the Holy Innocents, who are martyrs by blood alone. As St. Augustine says of them, “They are the first buds of the Church killed by the frost of persecution.”
The Humble Shall be Exalted
Understandably, Innocents’ Day is a magnet for topsy-turvy customs that involve young and old. In many religious communities, the novices had the privilege of sitting at the head of the table at meals and meetings, while the last person who had taken vows in the monastery or convent got to be superior for a day. Young monks and nuns would receive congratulations and have “baby food,” such as hot cereal, served to them for dinner.
A similar flip-flop occurred in the family. Customs like decorating the crib or blessing the baby were standard ways of observing the feast, and the youngest child was allowed special privileges and honors, even becoming master of the household.
Not all customs, however, bode well for the young ’uns. As we mentioned in an earlier post, some children awoke to a spanking from their parents “to remind them of the sufferings of the Innocents!” In central Europe, groups of children would revive a pre-Christian fertility rite by going to women and girls with branches and twigs and chanting:
Many years of healthy life,
Happy girl, happy wife:
Many children, hale and strong,
Nothing harmful, nothing wrong,
Much to drink and more to eat;
Now we beg a kindly treat.
They would then swat them gently with branches and twigs. In the Philippines and Spanish-speaking countries, Childermas is the equivalent of April’s Fools Day, a time of pranks and practical jokes called inocentadas.
Lastly, Childermas was an important day for the Boy Bishop. From Italy to Scandinavia and from Ireland to Hungary, medieval Christians relished the custom of “consecrating” a boy an honorary bishop as a vicar of St. Nicholas. The Boy Bishop could reign for as long as from December 6 to December 28. During that time, he and his entourage solemnly processed through the town and blessed the crowds, (we still have inventory records of the little vestments kept for the occasion), and they even had access to church funds, which led to predictable abuses – not unlike their corrupt adult counterparts, the boys sometimes emptied the church kitty to fuel their merriment. But there was a touching side as well. When a boy bishop in the diocese of Salisbury died during his brief appointment, he was given the full funeral of a bishop and buried in the cathedral.
Eventually, authorities began to crack down. In 1541, King Henry VIII outlawed the practice as superstitious and pagan. Queen Mary brought the boy bishop back, but after Elizabeth’s accession he fell into disfavor again; by the seventeenth century he was an extinct species in England. In 1982, however, the Anglican cathedral in Hereford resurrected the custom, and he again presides over some services from December 6 to 28 and gives a sermon. He is installed in a memorable way: during the celebration of Evensong or Vespers, when the Magnificat is sung, the bishop of Hereford rises from his episcopal throne at the verse “He hath put down the mighty from their seat.” Then, the boy, dressed in the regalia of a bishop, takes his seat at the verse “And He hath exalted the humble” and is given the bishop’s crozier. Whatever effect this inversion has for the boy, it must surely be good for the humility of the bishop.
All of Christendom once abstained from servile work during the Twelve Days of Christmas, but there was an extra incentive to do so on the feast of the Holy Innocents. According to an old superstition, it is bad luck to begin any new work on this day, either because it will never be finished or because it will come to a bad end. Regardless of the version, the superstition was strong enough to keep leaders like King Louis XI of France and King Edward IV of England from doing any business today. Perhaps the rationale is that just as the Holy Innocents’ lives were cut tragically short, so too would be any work done on their feast day. In German-speaking countries, Christianity almost literally baptized a pagan fear of souls wandering the earth after the winter solstice. According to legend, the souls of unbaptized children are chaperoned by the frightening Hel, the Germanic goddess of the underworld (from which the English word “Hell” is derived). Each child carries a pitcher filled with the tears he or she shed that year. But thanks to the mercy of God, if a person on Innocents’ Day hears their cry in the howling wind or sees their ghostly shape fluttering in the dark, he should call out a Christian name. By being given a “baptismal” name, the child is freed from Lady Hel’s grip and allowed to join the Holy Innocents in eternal bliss.

Michael Foley is the author of Why We Kiss under the Mistletoe: Christmas Traditions Explained (Regnery, 2022).

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Rorate Mass and Gaudete Sunday Photopost 2023 (Part 5)

On the third day of Christmas, we still haven’t finished with the huge number of your Rorate Mass and Gaudete Sunday contributions, which is a great problem to have, and a good sign of the steady recovery of our authentic Catholic liturgical traditions. So there will be one final post in this series, which will go up tomorrow.

In the meantime, we already have enough photos of your Christmas liturgies to make at least two posts, but there is always room for more, so please send yours in to, and remember to include the name and location of the church, and any other information you think important. Christus natus est nobis: venite, adoremus!   

Cathedral of the Holy Rosary – Vancouver, British Columbia
Gaudete Sunday
Rorate Mass

The Blessing of Wine on the Feast of St John the Evangelist

The Roman Ritual contains two different forms for the blessing of wine on the feast of St John the Evangelist. The first consists simply of three prayers; the second is slightly more elaborate, with three different prayers, preceded by a Psalm and a series of versicles. Both versions contain references to the origin of the blessing, an interesting example of how the Church has embraced and preserved a non-Biblical story about the life of an Apostle.

Many people have heard of New Testament Apocrypha such as the Protoevangelium of James, the traditional source for the names of the Virgin Mary’s parents and the story of Her presentation in the Temple. Some of these have had a significant influence on the Church’s devotional life and its artistic traditions. Irresponsible scholars have also created a whole cottage industry of foolish writings about Our Lord and the early Church based on some of the Gnostic Gospels, while generally ignoring the apocrypha of the New Testament’s other literary categories, Acts, Epistles and Apocalypses. Like the apocryphal Gospels, the majority of these were clearly written to lend credit to one heresy or another, and therefore rejected by the Church. In some cases, however, once the heresy in question had faded into obscurity, the relevant apocrypha regained popularity, since their heretical content was no long understood or perceived as such.

One example is the apocryphal Acts of John, a work of the second century with strong overtones of the Docetic heresy, which taught that Christ had only the appearance of a human body. It tells the story that when St John was brought before the Emperor Domitian (81-96), he offered to prove the truth of his preaching about Christ by drinking a deadly poison, in accordance with the Lord’s words at the end of St Mark’s Gospel (16, 18), “if they shall drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.” The poison did him no harm; this has given rise to the traditional representation of John holding a chalice with a serpent or dragon emerging from it, which symbolize either the poison or its effectiveness leaving the cup.
St John the Evangelist, by El Greco, 1604, now in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
When the Emperor thought he had been saved by trickery, the poison’s toxicity was proved on a condemned prisoner, who died instantly, but was later raised to life by John. For this, he was exiled to the Greek island of Patmos, as recorded in the authentic book of the Apocalypse, where he stayed until Domitian’s death; when the acts of the latter were rescinded by the Senate on account of his extreme cruelty (as reported by St Jerome), John was permitted to return to Ephesus, where he lived out his days.

St John’s Vision on Patmos, by Giotto, 1317-20, in the Peruzzi Chapel of the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Florence.
This story is referred to explicitly in the rubrics of the Ritual, and in the first prayer of the first form of the blessing of wine, as follows: “And just as the blessed John, drinking poison from a cup, remained altogether unharmed, so may all who drink of this cup today in his honor, be set free by his merits from every illness (inflicted by) poison, and all other harmful things…” Likewise, the second prayer asks that all who drink of the blessed wine “may receive of Thy gift health in both body and soul.”

The second version of the blessing begins with the Psalm “The Lord is my shepherd”, certainly chosen because of its best known verse, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” as well as for the words “my chalice which inebriateth me, how goodly is it!” The versicles said after it include the verse of St Mark’s Gospel mentioned above. The first of its three prayers begins with an explanation of the Incarnation: “Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, who willed that Thy Son, coeternal and consubstantial with Thee should come down from heaven, and be incarnate in the world of the Virgin Mary in this fullness of time.” The last part of this beginning, “this fullness of time”, rather than “the fullness of time”, seems to refer to the Christmas season, in which the Divine Incarnation is made manifest, as witnessed by St John above all others, and during which his feast day is kept.

The prayer continues, “that He might seek the lost and wandering sheep and bring it back to the sheepfold upon His shoulders; and further, that he might cure the man who fell in among thieves from the pain of his wounds.” This refers to a story recorded by St Clement of Alexandria, and repeated by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History (3, 23), that a young convert of St John turned to a life of violence as a brigand; the Apostle, though now very elderly, pursued the fellow into the mountains where he was wont to hide, and brought him to repentance. The second prayer says, “Lord Jesus Christ, who willed Thyself to be called the true Vine, and Thy Holy Apostles the branches”, citing the long discourse of Christ at the Last Supper recorded only in John’s Gospel. The third adds a reference to the creation of bread alongside the fruit of the vine, in reference to the Eucharistic discourse of chapter six of the same Gospel; it also says that John “not only passed unharmed from the drinking of poison, but also raised from the dead those laid low by poison”, referring to the story of the prisoner cited above.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Customs on the Feasts of St. Stephen and St. John the Apostle

The Wren Boys in County Kerry, Ireland, one of many topsy-turvy Twelvetide customs
Topsy-Turvy Twelve Days of Christmas, Part I

For most of Christian history, the Twelve Days of Christmas—the period in between the two great feasts of Christmas on December 25 and the Epiphany on January 6—was the real time to celebrate. Courts and businesses would be closed during this time, the firewood would already be chopped and the food already processed, and everyone would abstain from work as much as they could. Feasting and gift-giving did not end on Christmas Day but continued (on and off) for the next week and a half. Even the farm animals got a break from labor and some extra food, in honor of the ox and the ass reputedly present at the Lord’s birth.

Theatrical reenactments of the Christmas story were often held during the Twelve Days, along with other pageants and masquerades. In the home, the Christmas tree stayed up until the day after Epiphany and was lit every night. Families would gather around it to pray and sing Christmas carols. But perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the Twelve Days of Christmas were its topsy-turvy elements, customs that inverted almost every social ranking of the day. Rich and poor, laity and clergy, youth and elder, servant and master, enlisted and officer, men and women—everything and everyone would be turned upside down. Inversion practices are not unique to Christendom: the ancient Mesopotamians had a primitive version of it, and the Romans celebrated the Saturnalia from December 17th to as late as the 23rd with masquerading, loud clothes, and masters either serving their slaves dinner or dining with them (slaves were even allowed to wear the pileus, the felt cap signifying emancipation).
But customs that up-end take on new meaning in light of Christian belief. In Acts 17, 6, St. Luke records the accusation of Jews at Thessalonica who were envious of the Christians as “they who turned the world upside down.” Christianity does indeed turn the world upside down, for it rejoices in the Creator becoming a creature, nestling in the womb of one of His creations and being born a helpless babe. Topsy-turvy customs are a giddy imitation of the ultimate inversion, that God became man and that the King of Kings came as a servant.
In this four-part series, we take a look at some of these venerable, irreverent customs, and we will conclude for more conjectures on their theological and social purpose. But we begin with the Feasts of St. Stephen the Martyr and St. John the Apostle.
St. Stephen’s Day (December 26)
St. Stephen, one of the first seven men ordained a deacon by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is called the “Proto-Martyr,” for in being stoned to death by order of the Sanhedrin, he was the first disciple to voluntarily shed his blood for the Faith. Stephen is a model of that divinely-infused love known in the Christian tradition as agape or caritas or “charity,” for as a deacon he served the poor, and as a martyr he forgave his murders.
Boxing Day
One custom that imitates Saint Stephen’s charity on his feast is Boxing Day. The name may be derived from opening the poor boxes in the church and distributing their contents to the poor; or it may come from the custom of giving servants Christmas boxes for their journey home on their day off. Either way, the idea is that the rich should give to the poor and masters to their servants. In the British and Canadian militaries, this principle has been applied to officers and enlisted personnel. In Canada, officers serve Christmas dinner to non-commissioned officers and NCOs serve stewards. Throughout the Christmas season, “rules are bent in a playful way. Commanding Officers frequently switch roles and tunics with the youngest member of the unit. This soldier then becomes the honorary commander for the day. The remainder of the officers and the warrant officers and sergeants exchange their jackets and tunics for chef’s hats and aprons.” And on Christmas morning in the British Army, officers on deployment go to the beds of their enlisted men and serve them a “Gunfire,” hot tea mixed with a shot of rum.
In many places Boxing Day remains the customary occasion for giving gifts to one’s servants, paperboy, postal worker, and so on.
Not all customs associated with December 26 point so lucidly to the life of St. Stephen. The holy deacon is considered the patron saint of horses, despite the fact that he has no Scriptural connection to them. Some speculate that this patronage may have something to do with the relief from work that domestic animals, at the behest of St. Francis of Assisi, enjoyed during the Twelve Days of Christmas, but no one is certain.
In any case, the association stuck, especially in rural areas. Horse parades, horse races, and a “St. Stephen’s ride” in a sleigh or wagon were common, as was decorating one’s horse and riding it to the church for a blessing. Horse food (hay or oats) would also be blessed on this day. But this is not to say that horses enjoyed every aspect of the feast. In some parts of sixteenth-century England, people let out their horses’ blood with a knife “because Saint Stephen was killed with stones.” Happily, the equestrian motif survives in less violent ways today. In several nations it is customary to bake special breads in the form of horseshoes to honor St. Stephen.
Stefaniritte (Stephen’s Ride) in Austria
Ritual Scourging
Speaking of violence, there was a pre-Christian winter practice of one group ritually scourging another, not as an act of cruelty or punishment, but of kindness: the scourging either drove away bad spirits or imparted the sacred qualities of the tree whose branches were being used. One proof that the act was beneficent is that the person who was whipped was supposed to give his whipper a treat afterwards! 
Christians adapted these practices to their own holy season. In Orlagau, Germany, on St. Stephen’s day, girls would beat their parents and godparents with green fir-branches and menservants would beat their masters with rosemary sticks, saying:
Fresh green! Long life!
Give me a bright ___ [pick your treat]
In the same region, the boys got their turn on St. John’s Day. But in the Saxon Erzgebirge, it was the opposite: young men whipped women and girls on St. Stephen’s Day with bird-rods, preferably when they were still in bed, and on St. John’s Day the women paid the men back.
Childermas or Innocents’ Day, which we will examine in a later post, was an especially popular occasion for these customs. In parts of Germany, children used this day to beat passers-by with birch-boughs and be rewarded with apples, nuts, and other treats. But usually it was the children who got the short end of the stick, awakening on Childermas morning to a whipping from their parents in imitation of Herod’s cruelty to the innocent babes of Bethlehem.
St. John’s Day (December 27)
Like St. Stephen, St. John the Apostle and Evangelist is associated with charity, since his writings tenderly emphasize the love of God. John, in turn, was blessed by Christ’s special love for him. Though Our Lord made St. Peter the head of His Church, He retained a personal affection for the “beloved disciple.” This fondness is all the more endearing given the fact that Our Lord also referred to John and his older brother St. James the Great as “sons of thunder,” most likely for their fiery tempers.
In Vino Caritas
It has been said that St. John was the only Apostle who did not die a martyr because he had already testified to the Cross by standing at its foot with Mary, the Mother of God. Yet this does not mean that no attempts on his life were ever made. The saint’s most famous brush with death (as far as popular folklore is concerned) is when his enemies tried to kill him by poisoning his cup of wine. Some say that when the Divine John (as he is called in the East) made the sign of the cross over the cup, it split in half, thus spilling the poison. Others claim that his blessing neutralized the deadly beverage and allowed him to enjoy it unharmed.
Either way, it is the inspiration for a charming custom that almost literally toasts to the memory of the saint. The Catholic Church has a blessing of wine or cider specifically for this feast:
Benedícere et consecráre dignéris, Dómine Deus, déxtera tua hunc cálicem vini, et cujúslibet potus: et praesta; ut per mérita sancti Joannis Apóstoli et Evangelistae, omnes in te credentes et de cálice isto bibentes benedicantur, et protegantur. Et sicut beátus Joannes de cálice bibens venénum, illaesus omníno permansit, ita omnes, hac die in honórem beáti Joannis de cálice isto bibentes, méritis ipsíus ab omni aegritúdine venéni et noxiis quibusvis absolvantur, et córpore ac ánima se offerentes, ab omni culpa liberentur. Per Christum Dóminum nostrum.
Bénedic, Dómine, hanc creatúram potus: ut sit remedium salutáre ómnibus suméntibus: et praesta per invocatiónem sancti nóminis tui; ut, quicumque ex eo gustáverint, tam ánimae quam córporis sanitátem, te donante, percipiant. Per Christum Dóminum nostrum.
Et benedictio Dei omnipotentis, Patris, et Filii, et Spíritus Sancti, descendat super hanc creatúram vini, et cujúslibet potus, et máneat semper. Amen.
Which I translate as:
O Lord God, deign to bless and consecrate with Thy right hand this cup of wine and of any drink whatsoever: and grant that by the merits of Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist all who believe in Thee and who drink from this cup may be blessed and protected. And as Blessed John drank poison from the cup and remained completely unharmed, may all who drink from this cup on this day in honor of Blessed John be, by his merits, rescued from every sickness of poison and from every kind of harm; and, offering themselves up body and soul, may they be delivered from all fault. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Bless, O Lord, this drink, Thy creation: that it may be a salutary remedy for all who consume it: and grant through the invocation of Thy holy name that whoever tastes of it may, by Thy generosity, receive health of the soul as well as of the body. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the blessing of almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, descend upon this wine, Thy creation, and upon any drink whatsoever, and remain forever. Amen.
It was once customary in Austria and other places to bring one’s beverage to church on this day so that the priest could give this blessing after Mass. Later that night, the wine is poured into everyone’s glass before dinner. The father then takes his glass, touches it to the mother’s and says, “I drink to you the love of St. John,” to which the mother replies, “I thank you for the love of St. John.” Both take a sip before the mother turns to the oldest child and repeats the ritual, at which point the child turns to the next oldest, etc. The last one to receive St. John’s love gives it back to the father, thus closing the family circle. The wine, of course, can also be mulled to combat the cold of winter.
And it need not all be consumed in one day. St. John’s wine was used throughout the year as a cure for illnesses or at weddings, as a protection against lightning (!), and as a preservative for one’s other wine (it was believed that by adding a dash of St. John’s wine to your other casks, the wine would be kept safe from harm).

Michael Foley is the author of Why We Kiss under the Mistletoe: Christmas Traditions Explained (Regnery, 2022).

A Proper Hymn for St Stephen

The Roman Divine Office is traditionally much more conservative than other Uses in the adoption of new texts, and this is particularly true in regard to its use of hymns. Of the 39 Saints named in the Roman Canon apart from the Virgin Mary, only John the Baptist and the Apostles Peter and Paul have their own hymns, the latter only at Vespers; all the rest have hymns taken from the common offices. Of the seven common offices of Saints, only that of Several Martyrs has a separate hymn for each of the three major hours. The Virgin Mary’s common office, adapted from the Office of the Assumption, also has three hymns, which are used on nearly all of Her feasts, in the Saturday Office, and in the Little Office as well. Exceptions like the Matins hymn of the Immaculate Conception are quite late.

One of the gems which is therefore not found in the historical Roman Use is a proper hymn for St Stephen, Sancte Dei pretiose; it was used by the Old Observance Carmelites, Premonstratensians, and the Use of Sarum, just to name a few. Most of these Uses have it at either Matins or Lauds, with the common hymn for one martyr at Lauds or Matins, and again at Vespers. When it was originally composed in the 11th century, it had only three stanzas; a number of others were added to it later, but do not seem to have caught on.

Sancte Dei pretiose
Protomartyr Stephane,
Qui virtute caritatis
Circumfultus undique
Dominum pro inimico
Exorasti populo. 
O Precious Saint of God,
Stephen, the First Martyr,
Who, by virtue of charity
Surrounded on every side
Didst pray to the Lord
For the hostile people.
Funde preces pro devoto
Tibi nunc collegio,
Ut, tuo propitiatus
Interventu, Dominus
Nos, purgatos a peccatis
Jungat caeli civibus.
Pour forth prayers now for
The assembly devoted to thee,
That, appeased by thy inter-
vention, the Lord, may
cleanse us from sin,
And join us to the citizens
of heaven.
Gloria et honor Deo
Usquequaque Altissimo,
Una Patri, Filioque,
Inclyto Paraclito,
Cui laus est et potestas
Per aeterna saecula. Amen.
Glory and honor to God
The most high in every place;
The same to the Father,
and the Son, to the glorious
Paraclete; to whom belong praise
and might for all ages. Amen.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Merry Christmas!

Hodie nobis caelorum Rex de Virgine nasci dignatus est, ut hominem perditum ad caelestia regna revocaret: * Gaudet exercitus Angelorum: quia salus aeterna humano generi apparuit. V. Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. R. Gaudet exercitus Angelorum: quia salus aeterna humano generi apparuit. V. Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. R. Hodie nobis caelorum Rex ... (The first responsory of Christmas Matins.)

Illustration for Christmas Day from a Missal printed by the Desclée publishing house, late 19th century.
R. Today the King of heaven deigned to be born of a Virgin for us, that He might bring back to the kingdom of heaven man who was lost. * The host of Angels rejoiceth, because eternal salvation hath appeared to the human race. V. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth. peace to men of goodwill. The host of Angels... Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. Today...

On behalf of the publisher and writers of New Liturgical Movement, I wish all of our readers a Merry Christmas, and every blessing from the Child that is born unto us! By the prayers of the Holy Mother of God and all the Saints, may God grant the Church and the world peace in the coming year.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Christmas 2023 Photopost Request

Our next photopost series will be for the liturgies of Christmas, whether in the Ordinary or Extraordinary Form, or any of the Eastern Rites, Ordinariate Use, etc.; as always, we will also be very glad to include other liturgical ceremonies, such as Prime on Christmas Eve, Vespers, the vigil Masses, and any liturgies celebrated during the Octave. Please send your pictures to, and don’t forget to include the name of the church and its location, and any other information which you think worth noting. Evangelize through beauty!

In the meantime, we still haven’t finished with photos of your Rorate Masses, a beautiful sign of the slow-but-steady recovery of our authentic liturgical traditions. We will definitely at least match last year’s record-breaking six posts, but there is always room for more, so feel free to send yours in to the email address given above as well. Today you will know that the Lord shall come, and in the morning, you shall see his glory!

From our first Christmas photopost of last year: the Gospel of the day Mass of Christmas at St Mary’s Oratory, the ICRSP church in Wausau, Wisconsin.
From the second post: St Michael’s Abbey in Farnborough, England, right before the Midnight Mass.

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