Catholicism is a very tangible business—it’s about seeing and hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling as much as it’s about texts and arguments and ideas.George Weigel, Letters to a Young Catholic
Our Rector’s sermon this morning was beautiful, and model of how to preach in the midst of a crisis.
Honored to be among the clergy of Church of the Incarnation and the Diocese of Dallas.
It was to a room full of people in a similar situation to our own that C.S. Lewis once spoke these words:
The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.
Doodle of Lewis’ talk available here.
Last year I taught a class at Coram Deo called Becoming Saints. Since that class, our oldest daughter has remained interested in learning about Saints. She especially loves discovering Saints whose Feast Days align with a friend or family member’s birthday.
While this is an odd thing to brag about … our family has some great birthday Feast Days. Mine is St. Irenaeus of Lyons, defender of second-century orthodoxy and subject of my Masters thesis. Vivien’s is Mother Theresa. Our oldest daughter has St. Clare of Assisi, and our son’s birthday falls on the Feast of the Apostles St. Jude and St. Simon.
Once we arrived home from the hospital and got a few hours of sleep, I pulled out my handy Saint of the Day book and searched for March 3rd. When I first saw the entry, I was a bit disappointed. Most of our family’s Saints span the great history of the Church; Billie’s lived in the 20th century. St. Katharine Drexel, who died in 1955.
But as I continued reading, I was encouraged by both the opening sentences of her her story and by the commentary offered by the Saint of the Day editor, both of which you can read below:
If your Father is an international banker and you ride in a private railroad car, you are not likely to be drawn into a life of voluntary poverty. But if your mother opens your home to the poor three days each week, and your father spends half an hour each evening in prayer, it is not impossible that you will devote your life to the poor and give away millions of dollars. Katharine Drexel did that.
Saints have always said the same thing: Pray, be humble, accept the cross, love, and forgive. But it is good to hear these things in the American idiom from one who, for instance, had her ears pierced as a teenager, who resolved to have “no cake, no preserves,” who wore a watch, was interviewed by the press, traveled by train, and could concern herself with the proper size of pipe for a new mission. These are obvious reminders that holiness can be lived in today’s culture as well as in that of Jerusalem or Rome.
May Billie—and her parents!—follow the example of this modern Saint.
This time around in the newsletter I explore the link between metaphysics and architecture, with a little bit of help from a friend named Hans. (If that doesn’t sound like a jolly good time, I don’t know what does!)
Ira Glass, host of NPR’s This American Life, shares a family story about his Grandmother who became ill at the age of 32. She was hospitalized for months, and eventually doctors told her family that she was on the verge of death. A series of treatments were attempted, but nothing was working.
Her family decided, when all else failed, that they would try one more thing. They called for a Rabbi. When the Rabbi arrived, he performed a name-changing ceremony right there in the hospital room.
Curious about the whole situation, several family members asked why the Rabbi would do such a thing. It turns out that the Rabbi changed her name so that when the Angel of Death came, he wouldn’t know who she was. Ira’s grandmother changed her name in order to fool the Angel of Death.
And it worked. She survived, got well, changed her name back to what it was, and lived to the age of 87.
This family, by their own admission, is not particularly religious. Even for the religious among us, this story seems a little far-fetched. I don’t share it because I recommend it as a practice, I simply share it to highlight something important: most humans throughout most of history have placed a tremendous value on a person’s name. For a number of reasons this is not always the case today.
The God revealed throughout the Old Testament had a name, though it was not until His encounter with Moses that we learn what that name is. Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Rachel—just to name a few—all lived and died without hearing this name. It is not until Moses was bold enough to ask that God decides to finally reveal His name to His people.
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
God’s answer?“Tell them that my name is I AM.”
The God revealed throughout the Old Testament has a name: YHWH, which means “I AM.”
But you would be hard-pressed to find a devout Jew—ancient or modern—who is willing to write or speak that name.
Why is this?
We teach our children to ask for people’s names, and to use them in conversation. When we are in a new setting we wear name tags that allow others to learn our name, and use it, even before they meet us. When we don’t know somebody’s name, but we think that we should, we feel bad enough to call them nicknames like “Buddy” or “Dude” or perhaps my personal favorite: “Hey man, how have you been?” It seems as though humans are wired to call others by their name.
Why then would God’s people often refuse to call God by His name? Ancient Hebrews did not write or speak the Divine Name of God out of a deep respect—perhaps even a holy fear—of God Himself. There are some things so sacred, they are not to be spoken or written by those who are profane.
Sacredness and profanity cannot occupy the same space.
We see this notion all throughout the Old Testament. Very few of God’s people were permitted to enter the inner-most portions of the Temple. Those who were permitted to enter did so under very strict regulations: they ate (or didn’t eat) the right things before entering, they dressed a certain way, and they only attempted to enter on the appointed days. God is sacred, humans are profane, and it takes Divine Intervention to allow the two of them to coexist.
Which—if you listen closely during this busy season—is the message of Christmas: in the Incarnation of Jesus, the sacred and the profane occupied the same space without one destroying the other.
This brings us to something that we are asked to ponder on this eighth day of Christmas: the naming of Jesus (Luke 2:21).
The Incarnate God was given a name—a fairly common one in fact—and was called that name throughout his lifetime by all sorts of people. Today that name may very well be one of the most recognizable names on the planet.
Let this sink in: the God whose name is so sacred it is hardly ever spoken took on a very ordinary name and has allowed anyone to speak that name, whether they are confessing their sin or stubbing their toe.
Why would God allow this? Why risk the sacred for the sake of the profane?
For an answer to these questions, we only need to look at the actual name given to Mary’s child on the occasion of his circumcision: “and they called him Jesus, which means Savior.”
The Son of God took the risk of becoming human and assumed the name Jesus in order to complete a mission of reconciling God and humanity. The sacred became profane, was given the name Jesus, and lived and died in order to make the profane sacred.
Or as Gregory of Nazianzus once put it: “He who is becomes. The Uncreated allows himself to be created. He whom nothing can contain is contained in the womb of a young virgin named Mary.”
The celebration of the Holy Name happens at a very helpful time each year. In the midst of celebrating the sacred-becoming-profane at Christmas, we are also celebrating a New Year, and all of the fresh starts and resolutions that come along with it.
Most of the next twelve months of our lives will be spent living in the ordinary. We will all face our own extraordinary moments—births, deaths, sickness, healing—but they will be few and far between compared to the ordinary moments we face each day. It is in the ordinary, everyday moments of our lives that we, by God’s grace, become the type of people who respond in holiness to the extraordinary moments we know we will face in the year ahead of us.
When we reflect on the naming of Jesus, we remember that the sacred has become profane in order to make the profane sacred. The sacred has become ordinary in order to make the ordinary sacred.
Names probably mean more than we realize. May this new year be one of growing into the new name given to each of us in our Baptism.
A few excerpts from a sermon by Quodvultdeus, 5th century Bishop of Carthage, on Holy Innocents day.
On what drove Herod to slaughter babies in Bethlehem:
Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a King? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this you are disturbed and in a rage, and to destroy one Chile whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the death of so many children. … You destroy those with tiny bodies because fear is destroying your heart.
On grace and martyrdom:
God has taken up the children of the enemy into the ranks of God’s adopted children. The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The children make of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to themselves. … How great a gift of grace is here! To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.