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Beginning Advent With Gabriel, Zechariah, and Mary

23 November 2023

Beginning Advent With Gabriel, Zechariah, & Mary

By Joey Belleza

The Gospel of Luke is notable for, among other things, its rather attentive narratives concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary during the infancy and youth of our Lord. The stories of the Annunciation, the Visitation to Elizabeth, the finding of Christ in the Temple, and the Nativity itself all manifest such detail that, as many scholars (including Pope Benedict XVI) have theorized, these accounts were likely given directly from the Blessed Mother to Saint Luke. The phrase “Mary pondered all these things and kept them in her heart,” repeated twice in Chapter 2 of Luke’s Gospel, suggests not only Luke’s voice interpolated into Mary’s recounting of her memories; it more importantly points to the same silent, faithful humility of the Lord’s handmaiden who believed the words of the archangel Gabriel.

Luke presents two parallel stories– two annunciations, in fact– in Chapter 1: the first is the annunciation of the coming of John the Baptist to Zechariah in the Temple, and the second is the Annunciation properly speaking, that is, the message of the angel to Mary. In both stories, Gabriel surprises the two respective interlocutors with surprising news: to Zechariah he announces the pregnancy of his elderly wife Elizabeth; to Mary he announces her role in the coming of the Messiah. In each case, the truth of the message is so strange that both must ask, “how can this be?” Elizabeth is elderly and Mary is a virgin; how can either be pregnant? This leads to another problem. Zechariah is struck dumb for his unbelief, but Mary’s question is met with a further explanation from the angel. Why is Gabriel more patient with Mary than with Zechariah?

One reason, we might suggest, turns on the fact that Zechariah is a priest, but Mary is a young girl. The former has given his life to the service of God in the Temple, a service which required profound study of the Law and Prophets. Certainly the appearance of the angel within the temple would be a terrifying sight, enough to fluster any man, but in comparison to a young girl from Nazareth, we can still say that Zechariah simply should have known better. Already faced with the extraordinary apparition of a divine messenger, he nevertheless protests the content of the message by appealing to its improbability. Note that Zechariah says, “my wife is advanced in years,” not “my wife has passed her childbearing years.” His own words are not an indication of impossibility, and the story of Abraham and Sarah, who conceived in old age, should have been proof enough for this educated priest that the angel’s message could and would be fulfilled. Mary, on the other hand, is faced with a situation of true natural impossibility. A virgin cannot conceive except by some divine power exceeding the power of natural generation, a power now explained to her by the angel. Her question is therefore one of mere natural reason, not true doubt. And when the divine reason is pronounced to her, she conforms her will to God’s and consents to participate in the Incarnation of Christ.

Notice also that the angel says that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before Zechariah’s objection, while the power of the Holy Spirit is explained to Mary only after her naturally reasonable question. It is perhaps this momentary doubt of the power of the Spirit–who is, in fact, truly God–that condemns Zechariah to temporary muteness. In this light, we might be able to understand Christ’s own words in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, where he mentions that “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” is the only unforgiveable sin. Zechariah certainly does not blaspheme, but his questioning of the Spirit who, as the Creed says, is “Lord and giver of life”, certainly did the priest no credit. Mary, on the other hand, is really given little information–far less than the poetic prophecy initially given to Zechariah in the Temple. But her trust in God and conformity to his will supplies for the limits of her human understanding.

As the season of Advent begins, the parallels and contrasts between the “two annunciations” might teach us something about trusting in God. With the benefit of 2000 years since the Incarnation, we are in many ways like Zechariah. We should know better. We already know that Christ came to us as a child, died as a man, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and now continues his work on earth through the Church and her Sacraments. But despite this enduring presence, we still have moments when we let our doubt and our merely natural ways of thinking overcome our confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit. And when we allow ourselves to fall into this doubt, we too fall “dumb” like Zechariah, closed off from the divine wisdom, struggling in vain to bring God down to our ways of thinking. Christ rebuked Peter for this very sin– “thinking as men think, not as God thinks”– when he prophesised his Passion and death. But the Blessed Virgin Mary excels all human creatures, for when she is pushed to the limits of her own understanding, she utters not a word of protest but a word of faith in the God who had already brought forth life in the wombs of Sarah and Elizabeth. And with her word of faith, the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Let us look forward to the coming of Christ the Lord, Son of God and Son of Mary, with her same expectant faith.

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Advent & O Antiphons

23 November 2023

Advent & the O Antiphons

By Joey Belleza

As the Church begins a new liturgical year with the First Sunday of Advent, many parishes all over the English-speaking world will mark this change in through the singing of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” at Mass. But the origins of this beloved hymn arise from the ancient Church; the sixth century martyr Saint Boethius references these texts in his famous and final work Consolation of Philosophy (written as he awaited execution in 523 AD), meaning that these texts were already widely circulated in the fifth century or earlier. They did not yet take the form of a unified hymn, but in the form of seven separate antiphons which invoke Christ under seven different titles, asking Him to return again. These are the “O Antiphons,” so called because each one begins with the vocative ‘O’.

The sequence of O Antiphons is as follows: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), O Emmanuel. Traditionally, each of these was assigned respectively to the last seven days before Christmas, beginning on 17 December (O Sapientia) end ending on the 23 December (O Emmanuel). While the composer of the O Antiphons remains unknown, the author must have been highly literate with a poetic spirit; a feature of the O Antiphons considered together is that, when the first letter of each title is read in reverse order, an acrostic phrase is revealed: “ERO CRAS,” meaning “I will be there tomorrow.” Since the sequence ends on the evening of the 23rd, the anticipation of Christ’s arrival on Christmas Eve is subtly referenced in the antiphons. Furthermore, each antiphon makes use of several scriptural references. To give just a few examples, let us consider the first two antiphons, O Sapientia and O Adonai.

O Sapientia,
quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter
suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

“O Wisdom, who came forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end with strength and sweetly ordering all things: come to teach us the way of prudence.”

This antiphon references the following scriptural passages: “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High” (Sirach 24:3); “[Wisdom] reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well” (Wisdom 8:1); “Forsake childishness, and live, and walk by the ways of prudence” (Proverbs 9:6). 

O Adonai,
et dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redendum nos in brachio extento.

O Lord and chief of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the flame of the burning bush and gave him the Law on Mount Sinai: come to redeem us with your outstretched arm.”

This antiphon references the following scriptural passages: “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High” (Sirach 24:3); “[Wisdom] reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well” (Wisdom 8:1); “Forsake childishness, and live, and walk by the ways of prudence” (Proverbs 9:6). 

This references the following passages: “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty (El Shaddai), but by my name ‘The Lord’ (Adonai) I did not make myself known to them” (Exodus 6:2-3); “the chief over my people Israel” (2 Chronicles 6:5); “The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush” (Exodus 3:2); “These are the commandments that the Lord gave to Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai” (Leviticus 27:34); “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm” (Exodus 6:6).

As we can see in these two examples, the anonymous author has done a wondrous job of recalling images from the Old Testament, and invoking them to link the coming of Christ with the saving acts of God under the covenant made with Abraham. This style of composition continues with the rest of the antiphons, showing how the events of salvation history given to Israel all find their fulfilment in the Incarnation of Christ.

But why are they not all sung at once, as when we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in English? Why are they assigned to different days?

The O Antiphons are special because of their original place in the liturgy; that is, they were the antiphons for the Magnificat, which is sung at Vespers each day. For the days 17-23 December, in recognition of the Marian character of the season, these antiphons which express hope for the coming of Christ were matched with Mary’s own prayer of expectation for her Son. Thus, the O Antiphons themselves assume a kind of Marian character at the moment in the liturgical year when the Church most eagerly anticipates the celebration of Christmas as well as the Second Coming of Christ. When we sing the O Antiphons as the Church intends, we too enter into the mode of hopeful expectation, as did the Blessed Virgin, that Christ will come once again into the world, “to teach us the way of prudence” and “to redeem us with an outstretched arm.”

To hear the O Antiphons as sung in the Church for centuries, including the Magnificat, see the video below by the Dominican Friars of Fribourg, Switzerland. All the antiphons are available on their Youtube channel.

For more about each O Antiphon, see our previous posts here: (1) O Sapientia, (2) O Adonai, (3) O Radix Jesse, (4) O Clavis David, (5) O Oriens, (6) O Rex Gentium, (7) O Emmanuel.

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The Catholic Origins of Halloween

20th October 2023

The Catholic Origins of Halloween

By Fr Augustine Thompson OP (originally written 1995)

We’ve all heard the allegations: “Halloween is a pagan rite dating back to some pre-Christian festival among the Celtic Druids that escaped Church suppression.” Even today modern pagans and witches continue to celebrate this ancient festival. If you let your kids go trick-or-treating, they will be worshiping the devil and pagan gods.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The origins of Halloween are, in fact, very Christian and rather American. Halloween falls on October 31 because of a pope, and its observances are the result of medieval Catholic piety. 

Halloween: Medieval Christians or Pagan Druids? 

It’s true that the ancient Celts of Ireland and Britain celebrated a minor festival on Oct. 31 — as they did on the last day of most other months of the year. However, Halloween falls on the last day of October because the Feast of All Saints or “All Hallows” falls on Nov. 1. The feast in honor of all the saints in heaven used to be celebrated on May 13, but Pope Gregory III (d. 741) moved it to Nov. 1, the dedication day of All Saints Chapel in St. Peter’s at Rome. Later, in the 840s, Pope Gregory IV commanded that All Saints be observed everywhere. And so the holy day spread to Ireland. The day before was the feast’s evening vigil, “All Hallows Even” or “Hallowe’en.” In those days, Halloween didn’t have any special significance for Christians or for long-dead Celtic pagans.

All Saints & All Souls 

In 998, St. Odilo, the abbot of the powerful monastery of Cluny in Southern France, added a celebration on 2 November prayer for the souls of all the faithful departed. This feast, called All Souls Day, spread from France to the rest of Europe. So now the Church had feasts for all those in heaven and all those in purgatory? What about those in the other place? It seems Irish Catholic peasants wondered about the unfortunate souls in hell. After all, if the souls in hell are left out when we celebrate those in heaven and purgatory, they might be unhappy enough to cause trouble. So it became customary to bang pots and pans on All Hallows Even to let the damned know they were not forgotten. Thus, in Ireland, at least, all the dead came to be remembered — even if the clergy were not terribly sympathetic to Halloween and never allowed All Damned Day into the Church calendar. 

Costumes and the Dance of Death 

But that still isn’t our celebration of Halloween. Our traditions on this holiday centers around dressing up in fanciful costumes, which isn’t Irish at all. Rather, this custom arose in France during the 14th and 15th centuries. Late medieval Europe was hit by repeated outbreaks of the bubonic plague — the Black Death — and she lost about half her population. It is not 

surprising that Catholics became more concerned about the afterlife. More Masses were said on All Souls’ Day, and artistic representations were devised to remind everyone of their own mortality. We know these representations as the “Dance Macabre” or “Dance of Death,” which was commonly painted on the walls of cemeteries and shows the devil leading a daisy chain of people — popes, kings, ladies, knights, monks, peasants, lepers, etc. — into the tomb. Sometimes the dance was presented on All Souls’ Day itself as a living tableau with people dressed up in the garb of various states of life. But the French dressed up on All Souls, not Halloween; and the Irish, who had Halloween, did not dress up. How the two became mingled probably happened first in the British colonies of North America during the 1700s when Irish and French Catholics began to intermarry. The Irish focus on hell gave the French masquerades an even more macabre twist.

Trick or Treat 

But, as every young ghoul knows, dressing up isn’t the point; the point is getting as many goodies as possible. Where on earth did “trick or treat” come in? “Trick or treat” is perhaps the oddest and most American addition to Halloween, and is the unwilling contribution of English Catholics. During the penal period of the 1500s to the 1700s in England, Catholics had no legal rights. They could not hold office and were subject to fines, jail and heavy taxes. It was a capital offense to say Mass, and hundreds of priests were martyred. Occasionally, English Catholics resisted, sometimes foolishly. One of the most foolish acts of resistance was a plot to blow up the Protestant King James I and his Parliament with gunpowder. This was supposed to trigger a Catholic uprising against their oppressors. 

The ill-conceived Gunpowder Plot was foiled on 5 November 1605, when the man guarding the gunpowder, a reckless convert named Guy Fawkes, was captured and arrested. He was hanged; the plot fizzled. 5 November, Guy Fawkes’ Day, became a great celebration in England, and so it remains. During the penal periods, bands of revelers would put on masks and visit local Catholics in the dead of night, demanding beer and cakes for their celebration: trick or treat! Guy Fawkes’ Day arrived in the American colonies with the first English settlers. But, by the time of the American Revolution, old King James and Guy Fawkes had pretty much been forgotten. Trick or treat, though, was too much fun to give up, so eventually it moved to 31 October, the day of the Irish-French masquerade. And in America, trick or treat wasn’t limited to Catholics. The mixture of various immigrant traditions we know as Halloween had become a fixture in the United States by the early 1800’s. To this day, it remains unknown in Europe, even in the countries from which some of the customs originated.

Why Black and Orange?

All Souls Day’s association with these colors are derived from aspects of the Requiem Mass, or Mass for the Dead, which is celebrated on All Souls’ Day as well as at funerals. In the traditional practice, the liturgical vestments of the clerics were black (and black still remains an option for Requiems in the post-Conciliar liturgy). Orange is derived from the candles of unbleached wax prescribed for the Requiem Mass; whereas the liturgy on other days normally made use of white, bleached candles, the unbleached wax of Requiem candles produced a sunset-like orange glow which quickly became associated with All Souls’ Day.

Witches and Jack-O-Lanterns 

But what about witches? Well, they are one of the last additions. The greeting card industry added them in the late 1800s. Halloween was already “ghoulish,” so why not give witches a place on greeting cards? The Halloween card failed (although it has seen a recent resurgence in popularity), but the witches stayed. So, too, in the late 1800s, ill-informed folklorists introduced the jack-o’-lantern. They thought that Halloween was druidic and pagan in origin. Lamps made from turnips (not pumpkins) had been part of ancient Celtic harvest festivals, so they were translated to the American Halloween celebration. The next time someone claims that Halloween is a cruel trick to lure your children into devil worship, I suggest you tell them the real origin of All Hallows Even and invite them to discover its Christian significance, along with the two greater and more important Catholic festivals that follow it. 

When Fr. Thompson first published this essay in 1995, the spiritual conditions of Western society were quite different than today. He asks that we include this addendum with his essay: Given the rise of occultism, and even Satanism, over the past twenty-five years, as well as the appropriation of Halloween by Neo-Paganism, I strongly urge parents to be vigilant and circumspect before allowing their children to become involved with Halloween activities not under their direct personal supervision. Indeed, I think parents might consider having their children dress up as heroes and heroines of our Faith instead of the usual witches and ghosts. There are plenty of martyr saints, such as St. Peter Martyr OP, whose iconography will delight those seeking a scary costume! 

The Very Rev. Augustine Thompson OP is a Dominican priest of the Province of the Most Holy Name (Western United States) currently serving as Praeses (President) of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto, Canada. He is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, where he obtained his doctorate under the supervision of the groundbreaking scholar of late antiquity and biographer of Saint Augustine, Peter Brown. Father Augustine has enjoyed a distinguished academic career holding senior teaching positions at the University of Oregon and the University of Virginia (Charlottesville), as well as the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California. A well-published medieval historian, his many books and articles include most notably: Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Cornell University Press, 2012) and Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes, 1125–1325 (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005). His latest book is Dominican Brothers: Conversi, Lay, and Cooperator Friars (New Priory Press, 2017).

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Saint Francis of Assisi

4th October 2023

Saint Francis of Assisi (Feast Day: 4 October)

Getting to know the real Poverello 

Francis of Assisi remains one of the most beloved saints of all time. His love for the natural world, for his fellow human beings, and for the poor and suffering Christ have gained for him a wide appeal among Christians and non-Christians alike. The current Pope’s selection of the regnal name “Francis” is one of the most obvious signs of the saint’s exalted place in the popular imagination. This enduring broad fascination with the Poverello (“little poor one”), however, has led to some misunderstandings of the man and consequent misappropriations of his legacy. From his death on 4 October 1226 to the present, many different groups—across society, inside the Church, and even among Franciscans—have sought to claim Francis as a mouthpiece for diverse, and even competing, viewpoints. 

Fortunately, recent scholarship on the earliest documents of Francis’s life have helped point the way toward a fresh portrait of the saint. A proper examination of these early sources depicts a man who is decidedly not, as Franco Zeffirelli’s famous 1972 film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” would have it, a carefree nature mystic opposed to the Church and churchmen of his time. Neither was he a man suddenly bestowed, as if from on high, with a clear and detailed vision of Church reform, a project which he resolutely pursued until his death. Nor is he the man of popular hagiographical traditions exercising power over animals (unfortunately the story of the “Wolf of Gubbio” does not describe an historical event). Neither is he a total pacifist in the mold of contemporary anti-war movements, nor the author of the beloved “Peace Prayer “which often bears his name (“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…”). Nor is he a man who upheld total poverty as an abstract institutional ideal above all other concerns.

If these things popularly associated with Francis are taken away, what do we have left of this figure so deeply admired? The answer to this question is far more complex, far more fascinating, and arguably far more compelling than the man of the legendary accounts.

Ironically, one contemporary author who has contributed greatly to our understanding of early Franciscan sources is not a Franciscan friar but a priest of the Order of Preachers (i.e., the Dominicans). Fr Augustine Thompson OP’s book Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Cornell University Press, 2012) sifts through the earliest sources and eyewitness accounts from those who knew Francis, not to mention Francis’s own oft-neglected letters, to show a portrait of the man who, in his simple desire to follow God as the least of his disciples, struggled with the burden of authority thrust upon him. Unlike Saint Dominic, who had begun his religious life as an educated canon regular, Francis (only ordained a deacon toward the end of his life) was not a skilled administrator. His numerous attempts to produce an acceptable Rule for his friars prove this fact, and the effects of Francis’s managerial shortcomings were manifested in the bitter struggles among Franciscan factions which arose after his death. 

Despite all these things—or perhaps because of them—Francis remains a saintly example for all who, despite their faults and failings, strive to follow the will of God. As his own writings show, he was a man of the Church, deeply devoted to her ministers, confident in the power of the sacraments—especially the Eucharist. In his Letter to the Faithful and the Letter to Clerics, he admonishes each group, exhorting them to hold the Body and Blood of Christ with the highest reverence. He reminds the faithful in no uncertain terms the grave threat to their souls if they unworthily receive Holy Communion, while also telling priests who fail to use precious vessels and clean altar linens for the distribution and reservation of the Blessed Sacrament that they must render an account before Christ himself on Judgment Day. 

This Francis, burning with love for Christ present in the Eucharist, is the same Francis who received the stigmata—the wounds of Christ—upon his own body. He is not a man with power over animals nor an indignant opponent of bishops and popes but a servant profoundly devoted to the ministers and sacraments of the Church. Beyond the tranquil, romantic portraits and clean plaster statues on so many bird baths, Fr Augustine Thompson brings to light a very pious yet conflicted—and thus very human—saint worthy of our imitation.

For more on the historical figure of Francis of Assisi, see the following video and article by Fr Augustine. 

VIDEOPoverty in the Church & Saint Francis of Assisi

ARTICLEA Quest for the Historical Francis

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Igor Sikorsky’s Search for Faith

2nd June 2023

Where is God? Igor Sikorsky's Search for Faith

A spiritually unconscious or dead man would be in the position of a rushing air­liner with an unconscious or dead crew in the control cabin – Igor Sikorsky

“БОГА НЕТ!” (There is no God!) proudly proclaims a Soviet poster from 1975. Above, a cosmonaut looks out on the heavens, across which are countless galaxies, towering over the backward churches. It is a sentiment that now forms a dominant part of public discourse across the West, where religious belief is ridiculed and presented as incompatible with reason. But for the Russian scientist Igor Sikorsky, science had far from disapproved existence of God. 

Born in 1889, Sikorsky took inspiration from the Wright brothers’ first flight to enter the infant aviation industry. He established a successful manufacturing business in Russia, before fleeing to the US in the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution. He spent the rest of his life in America developing what is now a multi-billion dollar company.

Throughout his life, Sikorsky was awestruck by the scientific accomplishments made during the 20th century . “Aeronautics”, he argued, “was neither a science nor an industry. It was a miracle”. The aviation industry was still in its infancy when he began manufacturing planes: it required a true leap of faith to make his dreams possible. When asked by a journalist if he had seen God whilst ascending to the sky, Sikorsky replied that he had not seen Him, but he had felt God’s presence. Today, such comments might seem backwards. But as a pioneering aeronautical engineer, he could hardly be described as such.

Sikorsky is credited with developing the first commercially successful helicopter

Science can illustrate the great wonders of the universe. However, Sikorsky was acutely aware that some of the accomplishments done in the name of science were deeply troubling. This did not come from science, but it was a symptom of a culture that was jettisoning Christianity. The consequences, Sikorsky warned, would prove fatal, arguing that a man without faith was like the unconscious pilot of a plane. Although technically flying, he would be hurtling towards destruction.

"There is no God!" - a Soviet poster from 1971

This comment was made against the backdrop of the Second World War and under the cloud of the Atomic Age, a time where mass destruction loomed large. However, these comments ring true today in our postmodern age. Despite all the scientific accomplishments of the West, a moral crisis of being and purpose runs through the nerves of our society. Human reason is capable of great triumphs, but it becomes distorted when society has no place for faith.

Remedying this is not easy. However, the scientist warned against entirely ditching scientific enquiry and reason. Instead, he proposed that humanity must rediscover the power of “spiritual wisdom”, putting reason not as the end of human existence, but as a means to even greater truth. “The very first men to find and accept Christ were wealthy alien scientist astronomers,” wrote Sikorsky. The point is clear: science can point us towards God.

This brings us back to the beginning. Both the Atheist and the Christian look into space and see stars, planets, and galaxies; but arrive at opposite conclusions. The Atheist sees the stars and the earth, but that is all. They are the end of all existence. Sikorsky looked upon the same sky but saw something different. Reason led him to see that the universe was created by God, full of wonder and beauty. Just like the three astronomers visiting the infant Christ, he found that reason is no barrier to faith.

If you are interested in learning more about the place of faith in contemporary society, please visit our Faith & Reason course page. 

Note, this post draws on the following article: A Scientist’s Orthodox Faith’, The British Association of Iconographers Review, Issue 71, 2023

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The Cross of Good Hope

7th April, 2023

The Cross of Good Hope

At the start of the Easter Triduum, the folly of the Cross stands as testament to the power of God

Christ’s Crucifixion brings us to the brink of the central tenet of our faith. It is the final test of the claims made by the person of Jesus. At the cross, there are only two options left: either death swallows up Jesus or death is finally defeated. Of the mocking crowds with their high priests and Jesus’ few, faithful followers, only one or the other group can be vindicated. All the expectations, controversies, passion and hopes that surfaced as a result of the teachings and miracles of Jesus are concentrated in this moment of truth. Vengeance, sorrow, hope, disillusion, belief, unbelief, all meet at the Cross, each waiting to be justified or dispersed.

However, what takes place on the Cross and beyond is not immediately accessible to those who stood at its foot some two thousand years ago, as indeed it remains a profound mystery for every Christian since. It is an event that moves beyond human word and comprehension. “Every word is silenced before this… the Father’s hour, when the eternal triune plan is executed,” says von Balthasar.

It is precisely the Word, the only necessary Word, that speaks in the action that begins on the Cross.  The Cross will verify, through the glory of the Resurrection, the fullest revelation of God in His incarnate Word; and in doing so, it will stand as the final word of God’s love for humanity, in the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.

The Crucifixion, by Andrea Mantegna

Yet in this action, the Word nailed to the Cross utters seven, spoken words, as recorded across the four Gospels. Spoken by the Son, these words draw in all time and embrace it within the history of faith. On the one hand, they recall and fulfil the Father’s Word as revealed in the Old Testament, words spoken in earlier centuries, but overlooked and forgotten. On the other, they promise the new life in the Spirit that the Church will offer mankind for the duration of this world, and the future glory of eternal life.

Thus, to use Benedict XVI’s language, the word of God and event become deeply interwoven at the Cross. In the eternal nature of the Word, human events are joined to a greater and timeless mystery. As Christ hangs on the Cross, the Christian sees the culmination of the history of faith, the master plan enacted by the Holy Trinity in and through the vagaries of human history. The Christian sees on the Cross the Logos that gave creation itself its very logic, that overlooked the fall of our first parents, that was promised in ever-increasing relief over millennia of covenants and prophecies.

More than this, in the Son of Man lifted up on the Cross, the Christian sees the gateway to the end of all history, as intended by God: the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. The Cross unlocks the Divine promise that will close all earthly history and bring the history of faith to fulfilment in the new Jerusalem. Through whatever events Providence allows this world to come to its end, our personal stories will continue through the veil of that apocalypse and into the Light that will reveal their true significance. Through the Cross, shines that Light.

By Stefan Kaminski, Director

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Advent with St Anthony: Perseverance

22nd December, 2022

Advent With St Anthony: Perseverance

In this final Advent reflection, Gabriel Stirling looks at what St Anthony the Great can teach us about preserving in the faith.

‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see?’ – Gospel of St Matthew, 11.7

Advent will soon be over and Christmas will begin. As the Gloria returns to Mass, Christians across the globe will gather to celebrate the birth of our Saviour. 

At the same time, the change of the season brings to an end this series of blogs. 

We conclude with the death of St Anthony of Egypt. Aged 105 and having spent most of his life in the seclusion of the mountains, he left his monastery for one last time, heading to spend eternity with God.

Before his death, St Anthony spoke to his fellow monks, calling them to prepare “zealously” in hope of the return of Our Lord. Warning of “the treachery of the demons”, he nonetheless reassures them to “Fear them not, but rather ever breathe Christ, and trust Him.” 

St Anthony spoke from harsh experience. During the past few weeks, these blogs have delved into the spiritual torment which the monk endured at the hands of the Devil. In this 15th century Italian painting, St Anthony is shown being tempted by the promise of Gold. But trusting in God, St Anthony was delivered from the pit of sin.

As Christmas begins and passes, it might be easy to forget the lessons learned from Advent. But through the changing seasons, the message shown in the Holy Scriptures and by the lives of the Saints remains the same. The looming sense of preparation that defines Advent has value throughout our life.

Owing to this is the fact that we are in dire need of preparation. The threat of sin is one which we all face, a point graphically illustrated by St Anthony during the last few weeks. As St John puts it candidly in his First Epistle, “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.”

Yet we are not without hope. At Christmas, we celebrate the Nativity of the Incarnate Word and the hope which he brought into the world. This hope remains with us in the Church, which as the bride of Christ, prepares sinners to spend eternity with God. Her sacraments – and the Eucharist in particular – provide us with real hope that we might be reconciled to God.

Saint Anthony the Abbot Tempted by a Heap of Gold, Master of Osservanza

Therefore, the message of Advent is not a seasonal fixture that comes and goes like the latest TikTok trend. Our life forms its own extended Advent, a sense of constant preparation. This might seem a tall order. The world – and indeed our own lives – can feel irretrievably broken. But as one popular hymn reminds us, Christ offers us real hope of everlasting peace:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

Wishing you all a warm and Holy Christmas.

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Advent with St Anthony: Penance

8th December 2022

Advent With St Anthony: Penance

The second post in a series of blogs by Gabriel Stirling exploring the relationship between penance and Advent

In due course John the Baptist appeared; he preached in the wilderness of Judea and this was his message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ – Matthew 3:1-2 

Of all the Christian Feasts, it is Christmas that has become most embraced for materialist ends. In many shops, Christmas goods were out on the shelves before All Saints Day. But like a voice crying out in the desert, the Saints remind us to reclaim Advent in the name of penance. 

Penance is a big part of our Lenten preparations, but why should we embrace it ahead of Christmas? Should we not spend these next few weeks consuming material goods ahead of the big day, with moments of merriment intertwined? 

On the contrary, it is an essential part of our conversion and a fitting virtue for this liturgical season.

In last Sunday’s Gospel, St John the Baptist recalls the prophet Isaiah, who reminds his followers to “prepare the way for the Lord”. With Christ’s ministry imminent, it is possible to get a sense of the urgency with which St John the Baptist preached. This command stands for posterity, and in Advent, we are likewise called to prepare for the Kingdom of God. 

St Anthony of Egypt understood this urgency. Facing the torments of demons, he embraced a life devoted to fasting, prayer and poverty. The Egyptian hermit lived off bread, salt and water, sleeping on the bare floor. The demons could not cope with such devotion; they left St Anthony, recoiling in anguish.

Addressing his fellow monks, St Anthony reminded them that penance is an aid in spiritual combat against evil. “Demons”,  he states, “fear the fasting, the sleeplessness, the prayers, the meekness, the quietness, the contempt of money and vainglory, the humility, the love of the poor, the alms, the freedom from anger of the ascetics”.

Unable to stand against a truly penitent soul, the Evil One cries out in defeat.

Advent is partly about preparing us for Christmas. But look beyond the twelve days of Christmas and can see the eternity that awaits us in Heaven. The liturgy in Advent emphasises the return of Christ at the end of this world, encouraging us to think beyond our life on earth. Penance puts this anticipation into practice.

There is no obligation for penance during Advent. But the Church still recommends it as a way of preparing for Christmas. The Eastern Orthodox refer to Advent as the Nativity Fast, further emphasising these penitential themes. 


St Anthony’s dedication and faithfulness was extraordinary. But the lengths he went to should not discourage Christians. Not many of us will find our vocation as a hermit in the Egyptian wilderness. However, through penance, our souls are led away from evil and reconciled to God. 

The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Jan Wellens de Cock

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Advent with St Anthony of Egypt: Preparation

25th November 2022

Advent With St Anthony: Preparation

The first post in a series of blogs by Gabriel Stirling that will explore what lessons St Anthony of Egypt can teach us about the season of Advent.

‘Therefore, you too must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect’ – St Matthew, 24:44

During Advent, we are reminded not only of the Nativity in Bethlehem, but also of Christ’s Second Coming. This is a theme found throughout Sacred Scripture, as well as in the lives of the Saints. In particular, the life of the founder of monasticism, St Anthony of Egypt, offers us the chance to reflect on how we should prepare for the return of Our Lord.  

St Anthony was born in around 250 AD in Roman-ruled Egypt. A faithful believer from a young age, it was this devotion that made him a target for the Devil, who inflicted greater and greater torments on St Anthony. Not surrendering to the Evil One, he ventured into the tombs that inhabit the barren Egyptian landscape, to live a life dedicated to penance and solitude.

It was here in the barren wilderness that St Anthony entered into spiritual combat with the Devil. According to one account, he found himself subjected to the torments of demons who tried, but failed, to posess his body. The Devil tempted him with food and other material comforts, things that the hermit had surrendered.  But St Anthony was able to persevere in the face of these trials, strengthened through the grace of God. The demons eventually left him, defeated and demoralised. 

This retreat into the wilderness was not out of a desire for spiritual enlightenment or self-improvement. Instead, St Anthony saw it as a place of preparation before coming face to face with Christ. Speaking to his fellow monks, he said that that, by leading the contemplative life, they would be ‘ever striving and looking forward to the day of Judgment’. For St Anthony, the end goal of this ascetic life was to find his soul ready to meet with God.

St Anthony reminds us that the true focus of any Christian life should be one of preparation. In finding a place of relative peace, we can call upon God to help us with whatever spiritual trials that we face. Admittedly, finding a wilderness to prepare in is difficult when confronted with the noise of modern life. But quiet spaces still do exist, be it in praying the Rosary at home, visiting the Blessed Sacrament or attending a weekday Mass in church. In these moments, we surrender ourselves to God and receive a foretaste of the glory of Heaven.

The Tourment of St Anthony, a late-15th century painting attributed to Michelangelo

Advent offers us the chance to break the cycle of sin before the joyous festivities of Christmas. But perhaps more significantly, the life of St Anthony calls on us to prepare beyond Advent. Following his example, let us resolve to listen to God’s call and prepare our soul for the Kingdom of Christ.

Source: Life of St Anthony, St Athanasius/New Advent

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Saint Theodore – a Bishop for our times

19th September 2022

Saint Theodore: a Bishop for our times

Today is the memorial of St Theodore of Tarsus, the namesake of the home of the Christian Heritage Centre. But what else do we know about his life, and what lessons should Catholics take from it?

St Theodore was born in around 600AD in Tarsus, now part of Turkey, but which was then a predominantly Greek settlement in the Byzantine Empire. His studies took him first to Constantinople, and later Rome, where he initially planned on becoming a monk. However, his plans changed when in 669, he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Church that St Theodore found on his arrival in England had many problems. The dioceses were too large and many did not have bishops in their posts. St Theodore revitalised the Church, visiting all the dioceses of England, and appointing bishops to vacant sees. He managed to reconcile clergy who had fallen out, and held the first synod for the entire province of Canterbury. After his death in 690, St Bede wrote that St Theodore was “the first archbishop whom all the English obeyed”. 

St Theodore’s life exemplified the call for unity among Christians. He had travelled all the way across Europe from Tarsus to Canterbury. But during this time, St Theodore was always part of the same “Catholic and Apostolic Church” affirmed each Sunday in the Creed. Moreover,  St Theodore had managed to end to the divisions that had plagued the Church. Through this and more, St Theodore truly lived to St Paul’s command to the Galatians that “all one in Christ Jesus”.

In 2017, work began on renovating a derelict mill owned by Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. When the building was completed in 2019, it was given the name Theodore House. One reason for this was the donation made to The Christian Heritage Centre by the Theodore Trust of over £2 million, with which the Trust made its final bequest and closed down. This donation effectively gave wheels to the Old Mill project (no pun intended), breathing life into the carefully drawn-up plans. Given the charity’s intention of making use of the new building to help revitalise the Christian faith in our country, as well as St Theodore’s relevance to England and his veneration by Orthodox, Catholic and Anglicans alike, the name seemed all the more fitting.

Opened in February 2019 by Lord Nicholas Windsor, Theodore House not only hosts the charity’s courses, conferences and retreats, but it also provides facilities for bed and breakfast, as well as space for private functions.

We ask for his intercession for the future of the Christian Heritage Centre and for the future of the Catholic Church in England & Wales.

St Theodore, pray for us!

Source: The Catholic Encyclopaedia/New Advent