Faith and the Witness of Saint Agnes

Jacopo Tintoretto - The Miracle of St Agnes - WGA22466
Jacopo Tintoretto. The Miracle of St Agnes. 1577. Madonna dell’Orto, Venice

In the weeks before Septuagesima, I would like to consider the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. They are called “theological” because they relate directly to God. As a small boy, I learnt the lucid definition of the catechism:

“Faith is a supernatural gift of God by which we believe without doubting whatever God has revealed.” (Penny Catechism)

The virtue of faith is more than simply believing something to be true, it is an act of loving trust and obedience by which we draw closer to the living God who wills our good and has prepared heaven for us. Hence it is a virtue, not simply a rational response.

Contrary to a poplar prejudice, faith does not contradict our reason but enlightens it. It is not a “leap in the dark” but rather a journey in the light. For example, we can know from the natural light of human reason that there must be a God. God reveals Himself to us as not simply a force or higher power, but as personal, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is not contrary to our reason but goes beyond what we can know without God’s revealing Himself.

We should resist temptations against our faith and avoid those corrosive influences which seek to undermine it through pride of intellect and resistance to grace. Some books or films can undermine our faith or tempt us against it. We would spend our time better by reading or watching things that nourish our faith.

In talking about the theological virtues, I would like to draw inspiration from the the saints whose example inspires us and shows us how the virtues are lived. The saints also pray for us continually in heaven. This week we celebrate the feast of St Agnes, a young virgin martyr who was put to death around 304AD during the reign of the cruel emperor Diocletian. The Christians had grown in numbers. Some modern historians have inerestingly suggested that this was partly because of their care of the sick and the building up of a “herd immunity” to some diseases in contrast to those Romans who fled at the first sign of “the plague.”

After resisting those who wished to compromise her purity, St Agnes was dragged through the streets of Rome to be violated, and finally executed. As with many early martyrs, legends embellished the story of her life. We do not know for certain whether these legends are true – nor do we know for certain that they are false. She was buried in the catacomb on the Via Nomentana, a great devotion sprang up to her, and she was praised by St Ambrose, a Father of the Church.

The pain and desolation that St Agnes suffered did not cause her to “question her faith” as is assumed necessary today. When a tragedy occurs, Christians can feel pressured into saying that they had to question their faith in God. There is no need for this – our faith is the one thing that can really help at such times.

Instead of doubting, St Agnes made use of her faith and trust in God to triumph in adversity, encourage her fellow Christians and intercede effectively for the Church which was soon to be granted freedom. Let us pray to her for inspiration in our own struggles to remain true to the Catholic faith.

Adoring Christ, the Incarnate Wisdom

Adoration of the Magi Tapestry
Designed by Edward Burne Jones with details by William Morris and John Henry Dearle. The Adoration of the Magi. 1888/1894. Metropolitan Museum of Art
Recently there has been a dispute on Twitter over whether 2+2=4. We might readily dismiss such absurdity were it not for the provenance of the discussion being a Jesuit priest who is a senior commentator close to the highest authority in the Church.

The idea proposed was that somehow theology can make 2+2=5 because it has to do with God and the real life of people. Now Twitter is not a good forum for the extensive discussion of philosophy and I confess that the dear Father’s meaning is far from clear to me. However on the feast of the Epiphany it is helpful to address something that he could be understood as saying.

For those who yearn for a simple life, Father’s tweet might (even if unfairly) be taken to support an attitude that rejects any attempt at accurate thinking, a desire to reject the straitjacket of logic and mathematics, and a yearning for faith based on feelings and emotion, leaving to one side the supposedly harsh and unmerciful contraints of principle. In matters of religion, such an approach holds out the chimera of liberation from that terrible scourge called doctrine or dogma.

I address this topic on the feast of the Epiphany because the Magi, the men who have gone down in history as wise, may represent for us precisely the approach of science, of mathematics, of logic, to God who has been made incarnate for us.

There are countless movements in thought in the history of culture with the general title of “religion” which have attempted to reject dogma. They are doomed to failure in this because the very rejection of dogmatic truth is itself a dogma which may be disputed as such. More important is the delusion that somehow the discarding of doctrine in religion is a liberation. In fact it is an incarceration. Our Lord Himself shot a bolt right to the beating heart of the matter when he promised that those who continued in His word, his logos or wisdom, would know the truth “and the truth shall set you free.” (Jn 8.32)

The Magi offered their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, acknowledging Christ as King and God and sacrifice. In today’s collect, we pray that we who now know Him through faith may come to contemplate the sight of His glory. It really matters whether He is in fact King and God and sacrifice. We would be praying for something quite paltry if He were just a man, a fine teacher, a good example. The principle of non-contradiction is vital for us because Jesus cannot be Saviour and non-Saviour at the same time; He cannot be the way, the truth and the life and at the same time just another prophet.

The Magi in their search for the truth represent the ages of Christian civilisation which liberated so many, particularly women, by the establishment of Christian marriage, which put the calendar right, which invented the clock, which founded colleges, universities, and the modern hospital, whose care for the poor protected them from the ravages of landowners until the reformation closed all the monasteries.

The Magi represent particularly the pioneers who established the scientific method, rejecting the fatalism of Islamic thought and purifying the best of the classical philosophers, providing the foundation of the natural sciences, technology and medicine that we benefit from today. They did so because they believed in a God who is wisdom and truth, a wisdom and truth that was made incarnate in Jesus Christ whom they, and we, adore.

Let us celebrate the Epiphany by bowing down before the infant Christ and acknowledging Him as the sovereign Lord of our minds and hearts – not to take away our reason but as the very creator and foundation of that wonderful gift of reason which He implanted in our soul as a reflection of His own eternal wisdom. Let us thrill to those glorious words of St John with which we finish Mass

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh.

The Mother of God Leads us to Jesus

Sandro Botticelli - The Virgin and Child (The Madonna of the Book) - Google Art Project
Sandro Botticelli – The Virgin and Child (The Madonna of the Book) 1480. Museo Pozzi Pezzoli
When we use the title “Mother of God” to speak of Our Lady, we affirm both the true divinity and the true humanity of Christ, united in one divine person. This doctrine concerning Jesus Christ is essential for our faith and was expressed with clarity in the early centuries of the Church’s life against those who would deny either that Our Lord was truly man or that He was truly God.

Since Our Lord is truly God, we can have absolute faith in Him and give Him our whole lives. His humanity is the hinge of our salvation because He redeemed that humanity in His own passion.

The title “Mother of God” is therefore not simply a pious enthusiasm but a touchstone of orthodox faith in Christ. Nevertheless we also use it in our prayers and devotions. It forms the wellspring of all the other titles that we give to Our Lady: for example in the Litany of Loreto.

Our Lady never takes us away from Christ as though devotion to her were somehow in “competition” with that exclusive love and adoration which we owe to the incarnate Word of God. She always draws us to her divine Son, just as she drew others to Him during her life.

Our Lady also gives us the prime and greatest example of the virtues which we should cultivate in our love of Christ. Her obedience, trust, and fidelity show us how to relate to Him. Her final passage to heavenly glory in the Assumption then sets before us the fulfilment of our calling to eternal life.

Joining the Angels in Praise and Glory

The Mystical Nativity
Sandro Botticelli. Mystic Nativity. c.1500. National Gallery, London
We are blessed in England with a fine collection of popular carols which tell out the story of the nativity, foster our affections towards the infant Christ and lead us to pray; all the while expressing the doctrinal truth of our faith with clarity and simplicity.

We affirm that “He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all”, the fundamental truth of Christmas; within a manger lies He who built the starry skies. The humble surroundings of the stable, the poor bed of the manger, the silent adoration of the animals, are contrasted with the Lord of heaven and earth, our creator.

These marvels are not presented to us simply as events to study, but as the wonderful actions of God who loves us and wills to bring us the fullness of life, health and abundance. Christ is our Redeemer, before whose grace sin departs; by Him, God and sinners are reconciled. Silently, “God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven” and we ask Him, the incarnate Deity, to abide with us as Emmanuel.

Recalling how the angels sang “Glory to God in the highest”, we join our voices to theirs to praise and glorify our Saviour, mindful that as we lovingly recall His first coming in lowliness and poverty, we must ask Him to lead us on to heaven, to join the angels once again, crowned as His children, our robes washed in the blood of the lamb. May the celebration of Christmas renew our spiritual lives, and bind us more closely in the following of Christ, loving Him with all our hearts.

Christmas Masses in the Parish

At St Austin & St Gregory

12 Midnight: Sung Mass with carols
Vigil of carols and readings beforehand from 11.30pm
9.30am Sung Mass with carols
11.30am Sung Mass with carols (Traditional Latin)

Please note that there is no 5pm Mass on Christmas Eve.

At St Anne

10am Sung Mass with carols

Our Spiritual Journey to Bethlehem

Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre - Nativity - WGA17676
Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre. Nativity. Private collection
From all eternity, God the Son, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, lived in perfect happiness, in union with the Father and the Holy Spirit. There was nothing that could increase His happiness, nothing that He could need or desire. Our salvation could not add anything to His perfection.

Yet He chose to act as though He could not be happy without us. In complete divine freedom, He came down to earth to visit us, to be born of a woman, to rest in a manger of straw, to be cold and hungry, to suffer pain, and eventually to be despised, insulted, scourged and crucified for our sake.

At Christmas time, we should make a spiritual journey to the stable of Bethlehem. This pilgrimage involves us in an act of faith first of all. The Shepherds, after visiting the infant Jesus, “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” (Lk 2.20) They had seen a small baby, lying in humble surroundings. Their praise and joy came from having seen deeper with the eyes of faith, having been taught by the angel that this child was Christ, the Lord, the Saviour, the living God who came to take away our sins.

God did not need to save us, but we certainly need His salvation. As we contemplate the nativity, we must renew our humble faith and thanksgiving to Him, resolving to live as the sons and daughters of God that He has made us to be. God loved us with such a great and unmerited generosity, and it is only fitting for us to love Him in return with all our heart and soul and mind.

Gaudete Sunday – visiting Schola

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Next Sunday at the 11.30am Mass, the Schola Cantabo, a group from Canterbury Christ Church university, will be singing for the Mass:

  • Lotti: Missa Brevis in D minor
  • Palestrina: O bone Jesu
  • Victoria: O Magnum Mysterium
  • Palestrina: Alma Redemptoris Mater

Thanks to the Latin Mass Society for a grant to cover the expenses of the schola. Do encourage your non-Catholic friends to come and hear this beautiful music in the setting for which it was composed.

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo - Esquilache Immaculate Conception - WGA16359
Murillo. Immaculate Conception (1645-1655) State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
This Thursday, 8 December, is the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady on which we celebrate the unique privilege of Our Lady, being preserved by God from all stain of original sin.

In addition to the usual Mass at 9am, we will have a Sung traditional Latin Mass at 7.30pm.

(In England this feast day is not a holyday of obligation.)

The Threefold Advent of Christ

Michelangelo, Giudizio Universale 02
Michaelangelo. The Last Judgement (1536-1541) Sistine Chapel, Rome
During the holy season of Advent we naturally focus our attention on the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. His incarnation is the greatest event in the history of the universe and it changes everything for the human race. Having been lost in sin, we rejoice in the birth of our Saviour, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

In the crib, we see the infant lying helpless in a manger, vulnerable and weak. With the eyes of faith, we are moved with wonder and thanksgiving that God who created the universe makes humbles Himself to become an infant out of love for us.

Advent also reminds us of the second coming of Christ at the end of time when He will appear no longer in weakness but in power and glory to judge the world. Advent is a season of penance, a time for us to renew our life of faith, to put Christ first, to pray every day, to be generous in coming to Mass, and to make a good confession in preparation for the feast day.

Our Lord also wishes to make His advent in our own hearts, to dwell with us and abide with us. This indwelling begins at Baptism, but can be lost through our own unfaithfulness. Advent is a time of repentance when we come back to Christ, asking for His forgiveness and grace.

It is good that we share this feast with many in the world around us and we pray that some will come to faith, moved by the loving kindness of the infant Jesus, and helped by our own witness to the joy and glory of this Christian festival.

Alma Redemptoris Mater: Marian anthem for Advent and Christmastide

We sing the Marian anthem in the parish after sung Masses, after Benediction on Friday evening, and after the Novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour on Saturday.

From the first Sunday of Advent until the feast of Candlemas (2 February) the Marian anthem is the Alma Redemptoris Mater (“Loving Mother of the Redeemer.”)

This beautiful chant, dating back to the 11th century, is mentioned in the Canterbury Tales. Here is the Latin text:

Alma Redemptoris Mater, quæ pervia cæli
Porta manes, et stella maris, succurre cadenti,
Surgere qui curat, populo: tu quæ genuisti,
Natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem
Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore
Sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere.

and here is an English translation:

Loving Mother of the Redeemer,
gate of heaven, star of the sea,
assist your people who have fallen yet strive to rise again.
To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator,
yet remained a virgin after as before.
You who received Gabriel’s joyful greeting,
have pity on us poor sinners.

Here is a link to download a copy of the text and translation with musical notation. In the video above, you can hear the anthem sung by the Benedictine monks of Ganagobie in France.