Friday, December 29, 2017

December 29 -- Feast of Saint Thomas Becket, Martyr.

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Saint Thomas Becket is one of those tragic martyrs killed for the faith by political leaders who professed Christianity but acted like the most blood-thirsty, power-hungry heathens. Here is an brief account of his later life and untimely death at the hands of the servants of King Henry II of England:
"A great change took place in the saint's way of life after his consecration as archbishop. Even as chancellor he had practiced secret austerities, but now in view of the struggle he clearly saw before him he gave himself to fastings and disciplines, hair shirts, protracted vigils, and constant prayers. Before the end of the year 1162 he stripped himself of all signs of the lavish display which he had previously affected. On 10 Aug. he went barefoot to receive the envoy who brought him the pallium from Rome. Contrary to the king's wish he resigned the chancellorship.... 
St. Thomas seems all along to have suspected King Henry of a design to strike at the independence of what the king regarded as a too powerful Church....In deference to what he believed to be the pope's wish, the archbishop consented to make some concessions by giving a personal and private undertaking to the king to obey his customs "loyally and in good faith". But when Henry shortly afterwards at Clarendon sought to draw the saint on to a formal and public acceptance of the "Constitutions of Clarendon"...St. Thomas, though at first yielding somewhat to the solicitations of the other bishops, in the end took up an attitude of uncompromising resistance. 
Then followed a period of unworthy and vindictive persecution....His fellow bishops summoned by Henry to a council at Northampton, implored him to throw himself unreservedly upon the king's mercy, but St. Thomas, instead of yielding, solemnly warned them and threatened them. Then, after celebrating Mass, he took his archiepiscopal cross into his own hand and presented himself thus in the royal council chamber. The king demanded that sentence should be passed upon him, but in the confusion and discussion which ensued the saint with uplifted cross made his way through the mob of angry courtiers. He fled away secretly that night (13 October, 1164), sailed in disguise from Sandwich, and after being cordially welcomed by Louis VII of France, he threw himself at the feet of Pope Alexander III, then at Sens.... 
On 1 December, 1170, St. Thomas again landed in England, and was received with every demonstration of popular enthusiasm. But trouble almost immediately ensued....How far Henry was directly responsible for the tragedy which soon after occurred on 20 December is not quite clear.
Oral tradition has it that the king, in a rage, uttered: "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?"
Four knights came to Thomas at Vesper time with a band of armed men. To their angry question, "Where is the traitor?" the saint boldly replied, "Here I am, no traitor, but archbishop and priest of God."
They tried to drag him from the church, but were unable, and in the end they slew him where he stood, scattering his brains on the pavement. 
Excerpted from this excellent account in the Catholic Encyclopedia. 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

"O Solomon, I have Surpassed Thee!" ~ The Dedication of Justinian's Hagia Sophia

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This day in history - December 27, AD 537. The Roman emperor Justinian dedicated his monumental Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople. The huge edifice was actually the third Church of Holy Wisdom built on the site, the previous one having been burned to the ground during the calamitous Nika Rebellion of AD 532. Thus, this tremendous and enduring wonder of the world was built in less than six years.

The mosaic image above shows Justinian offering the Church of Holy Wisdom to the Theotokos and Christ Child and may be seen in the south vestibule of the church above the doorway to the narthex. A more detailed history of this mosaic may be found here.

Upon entering the church during its dedication ceremony, Justinian is reported to have exclaimed, "O Solomon, I have surpassed thee!" 

Hagia Sophia's interior as it looks today.
Justinian spared no expense in beautifying the church. The late Roman historian, Procopius, writing within two decades of the church's dedication, said:
"[The Church] is distinguished by indescribable beauty, excelling both in its size, and in the harmony of its measures, having no part excessive and none deficient; being more magnificent than ordinary buildings, and much more elegant than those which are not of so just a proportion. The church is singularly full of light and sunshine; you would declare that the place is not lighted by the sun from without, but that the rays are produced within itself, such an abundance of light is poured into this church.... 
Hagia Sophia exterior as it appears today, showing Ottoman-era minarets.
 ...No one ever became weary of this spectacle, but those who are in the church delight in what they see, and, when they leave, magnify it in their talk. Moreover it is impossible accurately to describe the gold, and silver, and gems, presented by the Emperor Justinian, but by the description of one part, I leave the rest to be inferred. That part of the church which is especially sacred, and where the priests alone are allowed to enter, which is called the Sanctuary, contains forty thousand pounds' weight of silver."
Click here to read the complete account of Procopius from his book entitled, Buildings.

Monday, December 25, 2017

"Where God wills, the order of nature yields" ~ St. John Chrysostom on Christmas

Adoration of the Child by Gerard van Honthorst, ca. AD 1620.
In celebration of the feast of the birth of Jesus, here are some snippets from one of the Christmas homilies of Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in late Roman times. This homily was originally given in Greek in the late fourth or early fifth century AD. The translation was done by Maria Anne Dahlin in 2012 and made available here along with several other Chrysostom sermons on Archive.org.

These excerpts beautifully capture St. John's exuberance regarding the Nativity, a feast held in the greatest reverence because: "the event which occurred upon it, was of all events the most stupendous....That being God, [Jesus] should have condescended to become man, and should have endured to humble himself to a degree surpassing human understanding, is of all miracles the most awful and astonishing." [Walter, On Saint Philogonius, p. 198]

This particular homily is entitled: In Natalem Christi Diem -- On the Day of Christ's Birth. In it, you can get some sense of why St. John was given the epithet "the Golden-Tongued" by his contemporaries. Enjoy!
"I see a new and amazing mystery. My ears resound to the shepherds—not playing a plain song, but singing a heavenly hymn. The angels sing, the archangels harmonize, the cherubim sing hymns, the seraphim give praise, all are celebrating God seen on earth, and man in heaven. He who is above is now below because of stewardship and the one below is above because of the love for man. Today Bethlehem is a type of heaven, receiving the hymning of angels in place of the stars. In place of the sun, making room for the true sun of righteousness. And do not ask how, for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed, He was able, He came down, He saved. All things meet together in God. Today he who is, is born, and he who is, becomes what he was not. For, being God, he became man without setting aside his divinity. For he did not become man by putting off divinity, nor again did he become God by advancing from man, but being the word, through impassibility, he became flesh, while remaining unchangeable by nature.... 
"Because everyone is dancing around, I also want to skip, I want to dance, I want to celebrate. But I dance, not striking the lyre, not waving a bough, not having a flute, not kindling a fire, but, in place of the musical instruments I carry the swaddling-clothes of Christ. For this is my hope, this is my life, this is my salvation, this is my flute, this is my lyre. This is why I go bearing these, because when I speak of the strength in them, I am taking strength with the message I say. Glory to God in the highest. With the shepherds, also, peace on earth, goodwill to men. Today the one who was inexplicably begotten of the Father was born of a virgin. I can not explain it, but he, as begetter, knows. According to nature he was begotten before eternity by the Father. But today, again, he was born according to nature, in this way the grace of the Holy Spirit is established.... 
"Come then, let us feast, come let us celebrate. For the guest is the way of the feast, the paradox also is the word of the begetting. For today the bond is loosed at last, the devil is disfigured, demons flee, death is loosed, the garden is opened, the curse is done away with, sin is put out of the way, the wanderer has gone astray, the truth has returned, the word of piety is spread and runs everywhere. The citizenship above is planted in the earth, angels have fellowship with men, and men speak with angels without fear. Why? Because God came to earth and man into heaven..."
Again, many thanks to Maria Anne Dahlin for making the words of St. John Chrysostom come alive again for a modern audience after 1,600 years! Click here to read the rest of this sermon and others.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

"Eight Days Before the Kalends of January" ~ The Earliest Sources for the December 25 dating of Christmas

A seated marble statue said to depict St. Hippolytus.
It's that festive time of year when those who profess not to care a whit about religion expend countless hours and billions of pixels to demonstrate that Jesus Christ was not born on Christmas. But before you succumb to their pathological zeal, take a few minutes to read some of the ancient sources from which we originally derived the date of December 25 as the nativity of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

The first clear source for this date is Hippolytus of Rome, a somewhat mysterious figure from antiquity who may have been an anti-pope of the third century AD. He was later regarded as a saint thanks to his copious theological writings. Sadly, only fragments of his works have survived to the present day, but among them is a work in which Hippolytus provides an analysis of the Old Testament Book of Daniel. The earliest notice of Christmas being celebrated on December 25 comes from this work, as follows:
"For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, eight days before the Kalends of January [that is, December 25], the fourth day [that is, Wednesday], while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in the thirty-third year, eight days before the Kalends of April (that is, March 25), the day of preparation [that is, Friday] the eighteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, while Rufus and Roubellion were Consuls." [Hippolytus of Rome, Commentary on Daniel, written ca. AD 205]
Dedication page of the Chronography of AD 354.
Another early notice may be found in the Chronography of AD 354. This work is an illuminated calendar produced by an artist named Furius Dionysius Filocalus for a wealthy Roman patrician. As part of this calendar, there is a list entitled "ITEM DEPOSITIO MARTIRVM". The first line on this list says:
VIII kal. Ian. natus Christus in Betleem Iudeae.
This appears to corroborate Hippolytus's date above. Interestingly, Hippolytus is also mentioned in this calendar in a list of the Popes with a notice saying: "In that time the exiled bishop Pontianus and the presbyter Hippolytus were deported to Sardinia on the island of Vocina, Severus and Quintianus being consuls [AD 235]."

After about AD 350, overt references to December 25 as the date of Christ's birth are more numerous, particularly in the Greek east where the date seems to have been more variable before that time. Many in the east had celebrated the Nativity on January 6 -- which would later be recognized as the feast of the Epiphany. Saint John Chrysostom, later bishop of Constantinople but at this point a presbyter in Antioch, offers a meditation on preparing for the Nativity in his homily on the feast of St. Philogonios which was celebrated on December 20. Note that John clearly separates the Nativity from the feast of the Epiphany:
A feast is approaching which is the most solemn and awe-inspiring of all feasts. If one were to call it the metropolis of all feasts, one wouldn't be wrong. What is it? The birth of Christ according to the flesh. In this feast the Epiphany, holy Pascha, the Ascension and Pentecost have their beginning and their purpose. For if Christ hadn't been born according to the flesh, he wouldn't have been baptized, which is Epiphany. He wouldn't have been crucified, which is Pascha. He wouldn't have sent the Spirit, which is Pentecost. So from this event, as from some spring, different rivers flow - these feasts of ours are born. [John Chrysostom, On St. Philogonius, delivered December 20, AD 386]
In a subsequent homily that same year while still in Antioch, St. John offers evidence for the date by citing official Roman secular records of the census of Augustus mentioned in Sacred Scripture, as follows:
“The 25th day of December has been celebrated from the beginning as the birthday of Christ, and the knowledge of it is now transmitted to us….It is manifest from Scripture that Christ was born at the enrollment or census, and the very day was certain from a written document in the Roman archives….It is lawful for anyone to search these ancient records, publicly deposited at Rome, and there to learn the time of this enrollment.” [John Chrysostom, In Diem Natalem, Migne: Patrologia Graeca, 49, 353-354. Translation taken from Hyde: "The Date of Christ's Birth" in The Living Church, December 31, 1904 p. 319.]
It should be noted that several other early Christian writers, including St. Justin Martyr and Tertullian, appealed to these same census records when defending the Christian faith. The records seem to have existed into the 5th century when they were lost after the Goths and Vandals pillaged Rome.

The dating of Christmas to December 25 seems to have been well established in Africa by about this time as well. In his treatise On the Trinity, Saint Augustine of Hippo writes:
For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th. [Augustine, On the Trinity, Book IV, Chapter 5, written beginning AD 400, published AD 428]
So it is clear that the roots of the December 25 date for Christmas stretch well back into antiquity.

The other common take-down posed at this time of year is that Christmas was artificially dated to December 25 to superimpose a Christian feast on top of a variety of pagan feasts which happened at around the same time, whether it be Saturnalia, or the birthday of Mithras, or the birthday of Sol Invictis, or the birthday of Horus.

This line of attack has been effectively dealt with many times, so rather than regurgitate the same refutation here, I would point you to this summary article here or this humorous video response by our separated brethren entitled: Horus Ruins Christmas. A balanced and very detailed article on this topic, entitled Sol Invictus and Christmas, is also well worth a read.