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First, Robert Mickens reports in his weekly letter from Rome that Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila will replace Honduran Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga as president of Caritas Internationalis,"the church’s leading advocate of Catholic social teaching and human development in the international arena."

And, provoking “volcanic enthusiasm” from leading women in Rome, Pope Francis has been confronting historical gender bias and economic discrimination against women during his Wednesday audiences.

...what is sure to surprise some, [the pope] refused to blame the crisis of marriage on the women’s liberation movement, though he didn’t use those exact words. “Many people hold that the changes these past decades were put into motion by the emancipation of women. But this argument is not valid, either. It’s an insult!” he said, again to loud applause. “It’s a form of machismo, which always tries to dominate women.”

Read the entire "Letter from Rome" here

Second, the editors comment on the pope’s ousting of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who was convicted of failing to report child abuse in 2012 and how it might mean that the era of “tolerating bishops who fail to protect the most vulnerable under their care has come to an end. This pope will hold them to account.” Some have criticized Francis for taking too long to remove Finn, but:

Francis is running a church with five thousand bishops. In order to educate himself about the controversy in Kansas City, a diocese of about 133,000 in a country he’s never visited, Francis initiated an investigation last September. He allowed that process to run its course, despite increasingly strenuous calls to sack Finn. The pope’s favored methods of listening and deliberation—most evident in the Synod on the Family—are themselves instruments of justice.

Read the entire editorial, “Held to Account,” here.

Pope Francis: Married priests "on my agenda"--"reform of the reform" not so much.

This week, during the bishop of Rome's annual meeting with his priests, Francis delivered a talk on homiletics, after which he took questions. A couple of his responses raised eyebrows. First the pope announced that the question of married priests "is on my agenda." Asked whether priests who married could receive a dispensation to celebrate Mass, Francis said that the Congregation for Clergy is looking into it, but that "it is a problem that does not have an easy solution." Pope Francis's openness to a married clergy is not in itself big news. Before he was elected pope, he acknowledged that clerical celibacy is matter of tradition, not a doctrine: "It can change." And last May Francis gave a bishop the impression that he was open to changing that tradition. Just a few months ago, the Vatican finally relaxed the rule barring Eastern Rite bishops from ordaining married men who minister outside their native countries. So it's not terribly surprising that he would say the issue is on his agenda.

What did surprise was Pope Francis's comments on the Latin Mass--or, as it was known after Benedict XVI approved its wider use in 2007, the Extraordinary Form. Francis called that decision "a couragous hand to Lefebvrists and traditionalists"--neither of whom seem terribly taken with Benedict's successor. Zenit reports:

The Pope noted that there are priests and bishops who speak of a "reform of the reform." Some of them are "saints" and speak "in good faith." But this "is mistaken", the Holy Father said. He then referred to the case of some bishops who accepted "traditionalist" seminarians who were kicked out of other dioceses, without finding out information on them, because "they presented themselves very well, very devout." They were then ordained, but these were later revealed to have "psychological and moral problems."

The so-called reform of the reform was, of course, one of Benedict's signature issues. American reformers of the reform were delighted when Benedict dispensed with the English translation of the Roman Missal and in 2011 forced the U.S. church to accept a new version--one that slavishly adheres to the original Latin--that its priests still haven't warmed to.

Naturally, traditionalists are not pleased with Pope Francis's reported criticism of the "reform of the reform," not that many of them could have been surprised. He's the first pope whose ordination followed Vatican II--and his liturgical preferences show it. These comments only confirm what had been obvious since his election: Pope Francis is not terribly interested in the pet issues of liturgical traditionalists. But what he said about the "psychological and moral problems" of some traditionalist seminarians really struck a nerve.

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To God who gives joy to my youth

Altar servers are in the news once again as a priest in the neighboring Archdiocese of San Francisco has decided to eliminate female altar servers.  This follows a recent interview with Cardinal Burke where he suggested that female altar servers have contributed to a loss in priestly vocations.

While it’s possible that a decline in altar serving among young men has played a role in the decline in vocations, it is almost certainly dwarfed by other causes: widening professional opportunities for Catholic men, smaller families, a shifting sexual culture, secularism, and the rise of an active and engaged laity to name just a few. 

More fundamentally, however, Vatican II’s reform of the liturgy changed the role of the server in ways that make it harder to play the role as a seedbed for vocations that it played in the past.  In the pre-conciliar liturgy, servers actually had a fair bit to do.  They prayed certain prayers after the priest (ostensibly on behalf of “the people”), rang bells during the consecration, and held a paten under a communicant’s chin to catch fragments of the host.  Most masses--even daily Masses--had at least one server and the work of the server required fairly close collaboration with the priest throughout the Mass.

In most parishes where I’ve attended Mass during my life, however, the servers usually have a much more limited role.  They usually bear the candles (and sometimes the processional cross) during the entrance and the offertory;  hold the Missal during the collects; and assist the priest during the lavabo.   In cases where the parish still rings bells at the elevation, this is also one of the server’s duties.  Very rarely have I seen servers prepare the altar.

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The Curious Case of Carlos Urrutigoity (VII)

This is the seventh in a series of posts on the Urrutigoity case. Read the first part here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, and the sixth here.

In November 2003, Joseph Martino attended his first meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops after succeeding James Timlin as bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania. During the weeks following his October 1 installation Mass, Martino had been briefed on the scandal Timlin brought to the diocese in 1997 when he allowed the Society of St. John, a band of traditionalist clerics looking for a home, to set up shop in Scranton. As Martino walked down the aisle of the USCCB convention hall, flanked by nearly all the nation’s bishops, he turned to his auxiliary bishop, John Dougherty, and said, “I think we need to suppress that group.”

But Dougherty wasn’t convinced. Canonically suppressing the Society of St. John, he worried, might put Martino “in the position of attempting to undo an administrative act of his predecessor,” he wrote to a canon lawyer in early 2003. The “administrative act” Dougherty had in mind was Bishop Timlin’s decision to approve the Society of St. John as a “public association of the faithful,” which afforded the group certain rights under canon law—including the right to appeal to the Vatican.  

Timlin’s “Decree of the Erection of the Society of St. John” was issued just a year after he met the group, then led by Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity—a native of Argentina. In the spring of 1997, Urrutigoity and his followers were ousted from the Society of St. Pius X—a schismatic organization that rejects the reforms of Vatican II—after it was discovered that they planned to establish a more spiritually rigorous group within the SSPX. Urrutigoity convinced Bishop Timlin that SSJ priests and deacons wanted to return to the Catholic Church in order to promote the old Latin Mass. Timlin was known as a friend to those who preferred the pre-Vatican II liturgy. Urrutigoity claimed that his fondest hope was to establish a seminary, a liberal-arts college, and a Catholic village. None of that would come to pass, as the Society’s efforts became mired in allegations of financial and sexual misfeasance.

Without running background checks on SSJ members, Bishop Timlin secured their reconciliation with Rome and made them priests of the Diocese of Scranton. But a year later, in 1999, Timlin learned that Urrutigoity had been accused of fondling a seminarian before arriving in Scranton. Urrutigoity denied the allegation. Even though three diocesan investigators told the bishop they found the accusation “credible,” Timlin did not sanction Urrutigoity. Later, when Society members were accused of sharing their beds with, and providing alcohol to, high-school boys, Urrutigoity promised that nothing immoral had transpired. Timlin just told SSJ members to stop such practices. The bishop did not discipline any SSJs until 2002, when a federal lawsuit alleged that Fr. Eric Ensey, a member of the Society of St. John, had sexually assaulted the plaintiff—and that Urrutigoity had fondled the young man while he slept. Timlin suspended the priests. Both of them denied the accusations under oath, and the lawsuit settled in 2005 for nearly half a million dollars. (Ensey, Urrutigoity, and Timlin could not be reached for comment.)

The canonical cover Timlin helped to provide for the Society of St. John would make it difficult for his successor to discipline the group. Adding to that difficulty was a letter of support for the SSJ that Timlin wrote in 2007, which found its way to the Vatican. Timlin’s efforts on behalf of the SSJs may have helped pave the way for their reappearance after Martino finally suppressed them in 2004. Ten years after Martino issued that decree, Urrutigoity would be named second in command of the Diocese of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. Last September, amid public outcry over the promotion of Urrutigoity, Pope Francis removed Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano, the man who reestablished the SSJ in South America, where several members still reside.

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Less Latin, more liberation?

In the course of my Friday reading, I happened on two unrelated (but related?) stories in succession. The first, from Sharon Otterman on the New York Times site today, brings readers up to speed on the situation at New York City's Church of the Holy Innocents, which is on the archdiocese's list for possible closure and consolidation with another parish. That's not the story so much as is the fact that it's the only church in New York City offering a daily Tridentine Mass. But even that's not the whole story, which also features a visiting South African priest who might have spoken out of turn about parishioners' rights, his dismissal by his superior at the Vatican Embassy in New York, and his recall by the archbishop of Johannesburg. Not to mention recorded transcripts of the priest's remarks being forwarded to the archdiocese, questions over just why Holy Innocents--which thanks to its thriving thrift shop and generous donations operates at a surplus--is targeted for closure, and fears among liturgical traditionalists and conservative Catholics in general that these developments "may signal a return to a broader suppression of the Latin Mass after a period of being encouraged under Pope Benedict XVI." Read it all here.
 
The second story, from Ruth Chojnacki and Jennifer Scheper Hughes in Religion Dispatches, looks at developments that may signal an end to ecclesiastical suppression of liberation theology and practice in Mexico, citing the "striking statement" from CDF head Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller "[placing] liberation theology in context with the work of the 'great Doctors of the Church like St. Augustine and St. Thomas.'” There's a lot of explanatory historical background in the piece, but the gist of it is here: 
..Mexican Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel announced that after a 14 year church-ordered suspension of the rite, indigenous deacons would again be ordained in the Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas—where the local church serves a largely Maya population....
 
As a result of the dismissal of sympathetic hierarchs and the dismantling of progressive wings of the institution conducted in a climate of suspicion, liberation theology came to be understood as a failed vision, while the Vatican continued to pronounce it a false one. Before a gathering of Brazilian bishops in December 2009, Pope Benedict XVI declared liberation theology “deceitful.” After almost three decades of systematic Vatican suppression, liberation theology appeared to be dying.
 
When Francis welcomed [liberation theology founder] Gustavo Gutierrez to the Vatican last year, it appeared no more than a simple gesture of respect for the beloved and aging patriarch of liberation theology. But Pope Francis’ revitalization of the diaconal ministry in Chiapas indicates a deeper level of support.
If you haven't been following developments, the whole thing is here, and worth a read. 

How should the church be governed?

SAN DIEGO -- At the Catholic Theological Society of America meeting on Saturday, Archbishop John R. Quinn, emeritus of San Franciscio, responded to critiques of his 2013 book on reforning structures of church governance, Ever Ancient, Ever New. Quinn, who served as president of the U.S. bishops conference from 1977 to 1980, previewed that volume's arguments in a talk he delivered at Stanford last year. "Media reports dealing with reform tend to focus on clerical celibacy and on the ordination of women and on the reform of the Curia," he said. "These are important topics, but it would be a mistake to stop there."

The reform he urges involves decentralizing papal authority and increasing the authority of local bishops conferences. In order to achieve those goals, Quinn argued, the church has to establsh regional bishops conferences and episcopal synods that would carry out the administration of the local church (e.g., appointing bishops, handling liturgical issues, etc.). These reforms were called for by the bishops at Vatican II, according to Quinn. After Pope John Paul II asked for recommendations on reforming the papacy in Ut Unum Sint, Quinn published a book about these issues called The Reform of the Papacy (1999). Yet throughout his ponificate, John Paul continued to centralize authority in the office of the pope. Local bishops conferences lost authority. "To date," Quinn told the Stanford audience, "fifty years after the council, no deliberative synod has ever been held." His latest book is an attempt to reignite the conversation he began nearly twenty-five years ago.

The first respondent to Quinn's book was Amanda Osheim of Loras College, and the second was Joseph Komonchak (who requires no introduction here). I've collected my tweets of the session below, so remember: you may find some typos; unless you see quotation marks, I'm paraphrasing; and owing to the density and speed of the remarks, I may not have captured the speakers' intent with total clarity. The tweet parade begins after the jump.

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Gather Us In?

At the Pray Tell blog, Nathan Chase has a practical question: what do you do when your worship space is "too big" for the number of people gathered to worship in it?

His question takes for granted that it is desirable to have the members of the assembly at Mass sit (or stand) reasonably close together, and I think he's right about that. I like a little elbow room as much as the next Catholic, but it has certainly been my experience that I feel most connected to my fellow Massgoers when they are within reach. And I think being connected to each other is a crucial dimension of the liturgy. It also seems to encourage vocal participation (singing, answering prayers, etc.). If the sign of peace comes and I can't reach a single person (outside of my family) to shake hands, I wonder, am I really part of an intentional assembly, or are we just a lot of strangers who happened to show up in the same place at the same time for Mass?

Becoming aware of that dynamic has encouraged me to make a conscious effort, when I go to Mass, to get closer to the people I'm praying with. It seems to me we should relate to fellow parishioners differently than we relate to random strangers we encounter in public. So, I've tried to overcome my inclination to steer well clear of others, as if I were choosing a seat in a doctor's waiting room, and instead opt for, say, a pew near the front that already has a couple of people in it instead of an empty one near the back. I'm not getting so close that it makes people uncomfortable. Just close enough that I can't forget they're there, too.

I also try not to park myself on the aisle, blocking easy access to the rest of an otherwise empty pew. I'm always astonished at how many people do exactly that. Commuters know it's poor etiquette on the train or bus to force other people to ask your permission to sit in the seat you've blocked. Some people still do it, but when the train is full enough, people will ask them to move, because it's less awkward than having to stand (which, on a rush-hour train, always makes me wonder, Why bother with the passive-aggressive seat-hog act in the first place? But I digress). Since churches seldom fill to capacity, people (at least in my experience) seldom ask the aisle-seat-takers to move, and the result is a lot of pews left mostly empty but for the very ends, all the way back.

What can be done to avoid antisocial seating patterns at what ought to be a reasonably social celebration? Chase mentions a few ideas. The best solution, I suppose, is for people who attend the same Mass regularly to get to know each other -- if Massgoers are not strangers, they're less likely to behave like they are. But that's a long-term project, and of course there will always be visitors. Another possibility: have someone get up, before Mass starts, and invite people to move in closer to the altar and to each other. This kind of thing has to be done right -- it has to be genuinely welcoming, not scolding (nothing like this). The goal is not making people feel bad about the seat they've chosen, but inviting them to take an even better one. The only place I've seen this done was in Florence, Italy, at the Duomo. This happened twice, on two different visits three years apart: a sacristan -- the same fellow, both times -- came out before the Sunday Mass began to welcome us all and ask us to please move in closer. He did this in Italian, but his warm manner made his meaning clear. I ended up sitting inside the rail that encloses the altar (visible here), next to the credence table, and close enough to offer the sign of peace to tourists from a number of different countries. The experience of intimacy was not at all what I'd expected from Mass in such a venerable and cavernous space, especially as a tourist, but I've never forgotten it, and I've often wished more churches could pull it off.

What's it like at your parish? How would you fix this problem? Or do you prefer to maintain a decorous football field's distance between you and the next sinner?

The Liturgies of the Triduum

It’s Holy Thursday. The Paschal Triduum is about to begin this evening with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. For Catholics these are our “high holy days,” a single celebration of the Paschal Mystery spread out over three days, the center and high point of which is the Easter Vigil.

How important is it to get to the three great Triduum liturgies? For a lot of Catholics, it’s getting harder and harder, because of work.

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Same-sex marriage and religious liberty, continued

Since the controversy about (and subsequent veto of) Arizona's SB 1062, a pointed debate in newspapers and blogs has ensued about civil rights vs. religious liberty.  Ross Douthat's New York Times column expressed frustration that religious dissenters are not being permitted to "negotiate terms of surrender" in a culture "war."

What makes this response particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

But is this best construed as a war, or does a less threatening metaphor suffice? Perhaps we're not fighting an apocalyptic war of religion vs. secularism, but instead tinkering with our delicate balance of Constitutional rights.

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Praying with the Psalms, Part I

On a thread initiated by Fr. Robert Imbelli earlier this month (“The Whole Christ” February 7), a question arose about praying with the psalms. I mentioned a couple of essays on this subject that I have found helpful, and Bob, seconded by Tom Blackburn, kindly invited me to share some insights from these works. I wrote a bit at that time, but other duties intervened and I was unable to finish. Thinking (rightly or wrongly) that others too might be interested in these ideas about the psalms, and given the fact that the older thread is now unlikely to be visited by any but the most obsessive blog followers, I’m posting some of this material here, in two parts.

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Wait, I thought that was a Muslim thing?!

A Christian husband and wife, both wearing traditional Jordanian head scarves, after a Mass celebrated by the Latin Patriarch near the site of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River.

On a bright, sunny morning in central Jerusalem, two friends and I approached a domed house of worship. A sign outside the door asked us to remove our shoes, so we slipped off our sandals and walked inside, where elaborate carpets covered the floors. A woman wearing a long floral skirt and a sweeping white headscarf bowed and prostrated in prayer, her forehead and lips touching the ground. These images and practices were ones I was used to encountering in Muslim communities, both in the United States and the Middle East. If it weren’t for the icons and crucifixes on the walls, I would have thought I was visiting a mosque. 

But this place was an Ethiopian Orthodox church, a Christian sanctuary. Many of its features—a shrouded altar for consecration, images of Mary and St. George, and twisting crosses that reminded me of Celtic ones—gave away its Christian affiliation. But other qualities, like the practices and attire of those who prayed there, to me were reminiscent of Islam. 

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Bach's Musical "Lectio"

I have remarked in years past of my Christmastide ritual of listening to Bach's Christmas Oratorio.The Oratorio comprises six cantatas for the various days of the season, culminating in tomorrow's Feast of the Epiphany.

More and more I find listening attentively, with text in hand, a form of lectio. And it makes me appreciate more Bach's own careful lectio of the text.

Thus, in the Cantata for the Epiphany, in the simple recitative of the Evangelist, intoning Herod's words to the Magi, "bring me word that I may come and worship him also," Bach adds a slight trill to the final syllable of "worship," hinting at Herod's hypocrisy. And in the answering recitative by the soprano, Bach provides a striking dissonance on "falsches Herz," – "deceitful heart."

But, most impressive for me, is the concluding Chorale of the cantata. Here, joyful trumpets herald the salvation Christ has gained us: "humankind has been raised to the side of God." Our celebration of our salvation, however, is tempered by the recognition of its cost. The melody of the joyous outburst is that of the Passion hymn, "O Sacred Head, pierced by crown of thorns." Bach is both musical genius and profound theologian.

John Eliot Gardiner's new book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven," makes for excellent lectio during long Winter nights.

The Genealogy of Jesus

I love the list of names in the Gospel today, Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus.

The list was the subject of a wonderful homily once given by the great Dominican theologian, Herbert McCabe which concludes with a memorable Advent meditation:  “Well, that is the Book of the Generation of Jesus Christ.  The moral is too obvious to labour:  Jesus did not belong to the nice clean world of Angela McNamara or Mary Whitehouse, or to the honest, reasonable, sincere world of the Observer or the Irish Times.  He belonged to a family of murderers, cheats, cowards, adulterers and liars—He belonged to us and came to help us.  No wonder He came to a bad end, and gave us some hope.”

The homily, along with many other splendid things, can be found in Father McCabe’s book, God Matters.  Blessed Advent.

The Lord Is Blessing Me Right Now

It's one thing to hear "The Lord Is Blessing Me Right Now".  It's another to see it sung by the Hands of Praise Deaf Choir from Canaan Baptist Church in Flint, MI.

 

The Church Francis wants

Mass for Pope Francis, Church of the Good Shepherd, Our Lady of Peace Center, Amman, Jordan

Last week, here in Amman, we celebrated the feast of St. Francis of Assisi and the pope who bears his name. Parishes held large Masses, and the Franciscans friars at the well-known Catholic school Terra Sancta College performed their annual ritual commemorating the life and work of their patron. The Jordanian Catholic television channel Noursat/Telelumiere (Light TV) live-streamed Francis’s visit to Assisi and provided immediate Arabic translation of his remarks.

The most important event was a Mass in honor of the pope hosted by Apostalic Nuncio Giorgio Lingua, the Vatican’s ambassador to Jordan. Though the Mass was an elaborate affair with many non-Catholic guests, a large youth choir, posters of the pope, and a post-Mass reception, it has not yet been covered in English-language news outlets.

This post isn’t an attempt to cover the event from a journalist’s perspective. Instead, because I was in attendance as a worshipper, I hope to share some of my own reflections on the significance of the service. The Mass reflected ways in which the spirit of the two Francises is alive and well the Catholic Church in Jordan, and it illustrates what the global church can learn from the church in the Holy Land.

Nuns on a bus

Many of those in attendance at the Mass, which was held outside Amman at Our Lady of Peace Center, a Catholic-run complex that serves individuals with special needs, were nuns. Nuns from numerous orders and nationalities live in Jordan, including the Comboni Sisters who work in Amman’s Italian hospital. I met these sisters, who hail from Italy, Egypt, Syria, Poland, and Singapore, on the bus ride to the service, and I continue to see them at morning Masses at Amman’s Jesuit Center. Their humble ministry reflects two of the values promoted by Pope Francis and his namesake: simplicity and accompaniment. These sisters left their home countries to live and work among the sick of Jordan. These nuns are a reminder that the church is not just one in service of the poor, but of the poor. 

What Christian unity looks like

The Mass was not just a celebration by Catholics, but by leaders of other faiths in this religiously diverse area. Representatives from Orthodox and Coptic Churches were easily noticeable from their distinctive garb. Other Eastern leaders entered alongside dozens of Roman Catholic priests as the Mass began, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who sat beside the Catholic leaders on the altar, beneath a large icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd.

In his homily, Archbishop Fouad Twal, head of the Archdiocese of Jerusalem, which includes Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, and Cyprus, spoke about the unifying nature of Pope Francis’s papacy: “His Holiness is a source of pride for us, because during the short time of his papacy, not more than seven months, the pope has been able to seize the hearts of many people, enthrall them with his goodness and simplicity and angelic smile, whether they be Christians or non-Christians.”

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Pope Francis looking very Roman

Many have been noting how Pope Francis has emphasized from day one his role as the Bishop of ROME. Another storyline has focused on his preference for simpler vestments and regalia, and this has been seen as a break with tradition.

But the photo captured here, during his recent trip to Lampedusa, shows that Francis may be going for the most traditional Roman look of all -- that of an ancient Roman pontifex. When he pulls his pellegrina up over his head like that, presumably to block the sun, the classicist in me sees an ancient Roman priest (e.g., click gallery below for a photo of the Augusto di via Labicana statue).

Thanks to the BBC for a great photo.

Christmas: December 25 or January 6?

Don't tell the kids, but it's almost time for Christmas! That is, if you live in Armenia.

One of the lesser known facts about Christian history is how little concern there was -- for the first few hundred years -- about determining, much less celebrating, the date on which Jesus was born. The first extant record of proposed dates for the Nativity comes from Clement of Alexandria, about the turn of the 2nd to 3rd century:

There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lords birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar]. (Stromateis 1.21.145)

Missing from this earliest evidence is either of the two dates that came to be celebrated later: December 25 (in the Western parts of the Roman Empire) or January 6 (in the Eastern parts). How did these dates arise? And why is Armenia a stalwart, still celebrating Nativity on January 6?

To these questions, professor Andrew McGowan of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne has provided a well-researched and accessibly written response: "How December 25 Became Christmas." After laying out the basic evidence, McGowan does a great service by providing a compelling alternative to a common explanation of the origin of the Christmas date. First, the oft-repeated one:

The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.

This explanation has been anthologized by standard coursebooks on the history of Christianity -- yet it has scant evidence to commend it.

McGowan admits, to be sure, that many of Christmas's modern customs and symbols (e.g., the tree) were appropriated through cultural interaction with non-Christian peoples in Europe. Such obvious borrowing of customs and symbols has led scholars to believe -- probably falsely -- that the date of Christmas was also borrowed from non-Christian ritual practice.To the contrary, McGowan proposes the following: "Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus birth may lie in the dating of Jesus death at Passover."

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation -- the commemoration of Jesus conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.

The first reference to the exact date of December 25 comes in the Philocalian calendar (354) from Rome, but no reason is given there for the dating.

In the East, too, the dates of Jesus conception and death were linked. But instead of working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the easterners used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar -- April 6 to us. April 6 is, of course, exactly nine months before January 6 -- the eastern date for Christmas. ... Thus, we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results (December 25 and January 6).

The notion that the Incarnation and Passion of Jesus ought to have occurred on the same day of the year expresses well the cyclical theological orientation of the ancient and medieval worldview. The Paschal mystery recapitulates creation.

The Armenians hold fast to the date of January 6, which was defended at length by the 7th-century Armenian mathematician, Anania of Shirak, in "A Discourse upon the Epiphany of Our Lord and Savior." In the course of that defense, he quotes from a letter about liturgical issues written by Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, to the Armenians in the year 335. It is furthermore clear in that letter -- which is the best extant evidence of Christian liturgy in Jerusalem before Cyril of Jerusalem, Egeria's travel diary, et al. -- that Macarius considered the date of the Nativity to be the same as the date of the Epiphany (Baptism).*

So while we complete our "Twelve Days of Christmas" in the West and prepare for our Epiphany to the Magi and "Three Kings' Day" celebrations, let us not forget the Armenians, who honor a tradition of equal antiquity.

* Terian, Abraham. Macarius of Jerusalem: Letter to the Armenians (A.D. 335). Introduction, Text, Translation, and Commentary. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2008. 

Letting a Ritual Do

large_ashes-300x202Note: This pious kid is not ours.

As someone who explains Christianity for a living, I thought I would be well equipped to explain it to our own kid. To the endless series of questions -- Why do you call that man Father? Why can't I have communion yet? What does Alleluia mean? Will I be allergic to the steam coming out of that, that, thing the man is swinging? -- I have usually had answers that could be simplified to kid-level. Recently though, I was faced with the first catechetical question that truly stumped me: Why do we put ashes on our heads?

Now it's been several weeks since Ash Wednesday, and I still haven't come up with a satisfactory answer for our preschooler. Our usual catechetical setting for liturgical gestures and adornments is during the quiet parts of Mass, in hushed tones from below the pew, where kids sit, seeing virtually nothing but purses, umbrellas, and Cheerios. But this particular question occurred during a different setting: the nighttime, bedside discussion about what's going to happen the next day, a kind of catechetical vigil we perform for an upcoming holiday or holy day.

This tradition began in order to explain secular holidays, such as Labor Day, Columbus Day, and Presidents Day -- you know, days off from preschool. And with each of these holidays, I could concoct a story that makes sense at kid-level. (The Columbus Day story remains the favorite, probably due to my insertion of piracy and dramatic weather events.) The days off for Jewish holidays? No problem! Let's learn about the lunar year! Even the major feasts of Christmas and Easter are reasonably simple to explain, primarily because they have gripping narratives to tell. To be honest, I've found the Trinity (Why do we say Father, Son, Holy Spirit?) easier to discuss than Ash Wednesday.

It's not that I don't know the historical backgrounds to this ritual behavior in the Ancient Near East, in the history of Christianity, in the modern liturgical renewal movement, and so on. It's not that I don't know the scriptural sources that supposedly explain the ritual. It's not like I didn't try the standard responses about ashes, dust, change, conversion, humility, and the catch-all, that it's about being good.

But now after weeks of pondering, I've come to the conclusion (quite surprising to myself) that I shouldn't try to explain the ashes of Ash Wednesday. As scholars of ritual, such as Catherine Bell, Pierre Bourdieu, and Ronald Grimes, so often remind us, there are many practices not explicable in words, practices which have a logic of their own and are not expressible in language. Sometimes the gesture is the meaning, and anything I say will make it less understandable. As a case in point, our kid loves watching baptisms, and she has not yet asked what that ritual means -- she just gets it, through the different logic of ritual practice.

This conclusion doesn't apply to all, or even most, aspects of our shared ritual life. And in the coming years, our daughter will get more and more explanations of what we do -- ways of wedding the logic of practice with the logic of words. But for now, I am learning a new lesson in catechizing: it's appropriate in some cases to let the ritual be. Or, we might say, to let the ritual do. Its meaning resonates deep in the bones of humanity, deeper than words can go.