Aaron Henderson
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Dr. Aaron Henderson is a Faculty Tutor for the Alcuin Institute for Catholic Culture.

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The Beauty and Ugliness of Christ

That Jesus Christ is beautiful is perhaps obvious if we consider His divinity, for God is supereminently beautiful. Indeed, God is the source and cause of all beautiful things. But how often do we contemplate the human beauty of Christ? Our good friend, St. Thomas Aquinas, can aid us in this endeavor. In his commentary on Psalm 44 (45), St. Thomas explains different ways in which Christ is beautiful. In addition to pointing to Christ’s divinity, the Angelic Doctor gives three reasons that the man Jesus is beautiful. Our Lord is beautiful first of all in virtue of justice and truth. As John 1:14 says, He is full of grace and truth. In short, we need not limit Jesus’s beauty to His divinity; Jesus also has a fullness of grace in His human soul, whereas we have grace as from an overflowing and participation in His. The second aspect St. Thomas mentions is Jesus’s honorable way of life. He becomes the beautiful and perfect pattern of life that we ought to follow. The last aspect St. Thomas mentions is bodily beauty. He thinks that this too existed in Christ. And this is where things get interesting. St. Thomas appeals to the Song of Songs: “Behold you are fair, my beloved.” This is a profound way of seeing in the Old Testament a sign and figure of Christ. But isn’t it in tension with texts like Isaiah 53:2, which describe God’s messianic servant as ugly? “We have seen that there is in him no beauty or comeliness.” Furthermore, Jesus desired to be poor for our sake. Just consider Philippians 2, in which the Apostle speaks about Jesus being in the form of God such that He didn’t count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied Himself, taking on the form of a slave or servant. We know how Jesus preached about the dangers of wealth and opulence. This should apply to bodily beauty too, since the Christian is supposed to cast these things aside for the sake of higher goods. How does St. Thomas respond to this? He says that Christ did not have absolutely supreme bodily beauty, since this was in no way required for His saving mission and in fact may have hindered it in some manner. Instead, St. Thomas thinks that Christ had the highest bodily beauty which was appropriate for His state. He may have had some awe-inspiring features and a certain grace about Him, but things like golden hair and “ruddiness,” as St. Thomas puts it, a flush, red face, would not have suited Him. He follows St. Augustine in speculating that something divine would have shone in Christ’s human face. We have, then, a dramatic interplay between beauty and ugliness in Christ, especially when we consider His passion and death. After all, it was to Jesus's passion and death that the prophet Isaiah was pointing when He said that the Suffering Servant had no beauty or comeliness. God's servant was said to be a man weighed down by sorrows and afflicted. The suffering of Christ, at least on the surface, is a supremely ugly thing. It is no wonder that people turned their heads from Him. The death of Christ, at least at first blush, is a dishonorable and horrible reality. Crucifixion was perhaps the most brutal death one could experience in the ancient world; indeed, the Romans designed it to be such. And yet, from the ugliness inherent in the paschal mystery comes the unsurpassable beauty of our redemption. The Cross for the Christian is the ultimate sign of contradiction, just as the one on the Cross had been such a sign His whole public ministry. It is for the Christian the most beautiful object, since from the bloody Cross comes the cleansing power of grace and salvation. It is through the ugliness of the Cross that we are brought to the beauty that alone can save.

May’s Treasures

May is a relatively unassuming month. Though we are still in the holy season of Easter, we have celebrated the day itself and await the great day of Pentecost. Between these two important days, however, there is much to celebrate. In fact, there is so much going on in May from the perspective of the Church’s liturgical calendar that it cannot be exhausted here. There are different ways one could divide up and categorize the memorials and feasts, but I will consider Doctors, Apostles, Mary, and Jesus. Even categorizing things this way, there is a richness that cannot be adequately expressed, a depth that cannot be sufficiently plumbed. For this reason, I will focus in a special way on the Ascension of the Lord, a solemnity not infrequently overshadowed by the aforementioned solemnities of Easter and Pentecost.

Perhaps the title “Doctor of the Church” is new to you, or perhaps you’ve never quite understood what it means. The persons afforded this lofty title are not medical professionals, of course, but doctors in the classical sense, namely teachers. In brief, the Doctors of the Church are saintly men and woman who have significantly contributed to our understanding of the mysteries of faith. Through their teaching, they provide sure guidance to the faithful of every age and nation. There are, to my knowledge, thirty-seven such Doctors, among whom are St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Catherine of Siena. On May 2, we remember St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. He is best known for safeguarding Christological orthodoxy at the time of the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325. He taught, against the heretic Arius, that Jesus is true God, eternally begotten of the Father, not a highly exalted creature as Arius had erroneously taught. The Son is, as we profess in the Creed, consubstantial with the Father. This May, read one of his books. For example, read his On the Incarnation and reflect on the unsurpassable gift we have in Jesus, the Word made flesh. Ask St. Athanasius for his intercession, that you too might hold fast to the truth about Christ and His saving work for us.

There are two additional Doctors of the Church celebrated in May: St. John of Avila and St. Bede the Venerable (May 10 and 25 respectively). Pope Benedict XVI said the following in his 2012 Apostolic Letter declaring St. John of Avila, the early 16th century priest and mystic, a Doctor of the Church: “The love of God, made known in Jesus Christ, is the key to the personal experience and teaching of the Holy Master John of Avila, an ‘evangelical preacher’ constantly grounded in the Sacred Scriptures, passionately concerned for the truth and an outstanding precursor of the new evangelization.” Following the example of St. John, read the Scriptures with faith and devotion. Thereafter, with a heart set ablaze by charity, reach out to others for the sake of bringing them to Christ. At the workplace, be an example of kindness, integrity, and love. At home, allow divine charity to be the unifying principle of your family. St. Bede was a 6th-7th century English monk. His Ecclesiastical History of the English People is itself regarded as important in the history of the English people and in the history of literature. His learning and scholarship should be imitated by us. If you are a student or a teacher, ask for this venerable man’s intercession.

Next, the Church commends the Apostles. More specifically, she holds up Sts. Philip and James on May 3, and St. Matthias on May 14. The first two were part of the original band of twelve disciples chosen by Jesus. In choosing twelve, reminiscent of the twelve Tribes of Israel, Jesus signifies that He is reconstituting Israel. Matthias is chosen to fill the vacancy that Judas’s untimely and shameful death creates. The choosing of Matthias gives us some insight into what it means to be an Apostle. Consider these words from Acts 1:21, “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” An Apostle, then, is one who has experienced the public ministry of Jesus, which began with His baptism in the Jordan and ended with His Ascension into heavenly glory. An Apostle (the word means “one who is sent”) is above all a witness to Jesus’s Resurrection, a witness to the fact that Jesus through His paschal mystery has conquered death and secured victory and life for all those who believe in Him. Though the office of Apostle is unique in the life and history of the Church, bear witness in your own way to the truth of the Lord’s Resurrection. Commit yourself to the teaching of the Apostles and their successors (the bishops).

The Blessed Virgin Mary makes a powerful appearance in the month of May as well. On May 13, we celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. Beginning in 1917, the Virgin appeared to three peasant children (Francisco, Jacinta, and Lucia) in Fatima, Portugal. She gave a powerful message of prayer (especially the holy rosary) and repentance. She warned of grave consequences for the world if the people of the world did not turn to her Immaculate Heart. On this day, pray the holy rosary and ask for Mary’s intercession. On March 25, Pope Francis, along with bishops from around the world, consecrated Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Take this time to consecrate yourself and your family to it as well, and to the Sacred Heart of her divine Son. Perhaps you can focus on the following prayer, revealed to the three children of Fatima: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who are in most need of Thy mercy.”

The second Marian feast is that of the Visitation on May 31. This celebrates the visit Mary makes to her relative Elizabeth. The latter had already conceived a child of her own, John (later to be called “the Baptist” or “the Baptizer”). This encounter, which is recorded in Luke 1:39-56, is rich with meaning. First, upon Mary’s greeting, John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. Thus causes Elizabeth to exclaim, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” If these holy words sound familiar, it is because we pray them in the Hail Mary (a thoroughly scriptural prayer). In response to these words, Mary elects not to magnify or exalt herself, but rather to magnify the Lord. We have here Mary’s famous Magnificat. Take some time to reflect on this mystery of our salvation. Contemplate especially Elizabeth’s words concerning Mary, Mother of God, and Mary’s own words concerning God and His loving salvific plan.

Last but infinitely far from least we have Jesus Himself. On May 29, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord. When the Lord gloriously rises to new life, He does not remain forever upon the earth. Instead, He returns to His Father and takes His celestial throne. This scene, as recorded in the Gospels, is a time of sadness for His disciples, for they wonder what will become of them in Jesus’s absence. But Jesus had promised that He would not leave them orphans (Jn. 14:18). Indeed, it is better that He departs, since His ascent means the descent of the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth (Jn. 14:26). He it is who will empower the disciples boldly to carry out the Lord’s missionary mandate (see Mt. 28:19). Our Lord’s Ascension, as I said before, can tend to get overshadowed by Easter and Pentecost. But let us not forget this marvelous solemnity, on which the Lord consummated His earthly ministry and went to prepare a heavenly place for us.

Our Christian ancestors did much to celebrate this wonderful day. In the early Church, liturgical processions occurred. Eventually, however, perhaps in the eleventh century, quasi-liturgical “pageants” took their place. By the thirteenth century, a fairly general custom was to hoist a statue of the Risen Christ until it disappeared through the church’s ceiling. There are other relatively obscure customs connected with this day as well, including eating a bird to signify Jesus’s “flying” to heaven. This custom was widespread in many parts of Europe in the Middle Ages. In Central Europe, mountain climbing and picnics on high places were part of this blessed day. Very few of these customs remain today. Nevertheless, perhaps some of them may experience a renewal in contemporary Christian homes. A day of reading the Gospel account(s) of the Ascension, feasting on the meat of a bird to symbolize our Lord’s departure, and taking a family hike would be quite fitting. The Church’s maternal care continues unabated in May, so make sure to take full advantage and respond in thanksgiving.

Quick Tips:

-Read the writings of the Doctors of the Church, such as On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius (May 2, 10, and 25). -Pray for the bishops, successors of the Apostles (May 3 and 14) -Pray the rosary and ask for Mary’s intercession; pray the Fatima Prayer (May 13 and 31) -Reflect on the mystery of Jesus’s Ascension; eat a suitable meal (a bird of some kind) and take a hike with the family (May 26).

The Development of Doctrine

John Henry Cardinal Newman, canonized by Pope Francis in 2019, was the most famous convert to Catholicism of the 19th century. Prior to his reception into the Catholic Church in 1845, Newman was an Anglican priest and member of the so-called Oxford Movement. This movement, in opposition to various “protestantizing” tendencies in the Church of England, worked for a “catholic” renewal of sorts, a renewal at once doctrinal, pastoral, and devotional. Proponents of this movement considered the Church of England to be, at least ideally, a via media, a middle path or way, between ultra-protestantism and Roman Catholicism. But the more Newman examined the claims of the Roman Catholic Church, her history and councils, her Fathers and Doctors, the more he was convinced that she alone was the Lord’s one sheepfold. (You can read more about Newman’s conversion in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, an intellectual autobiography not infrequently compared to St. Augustine’s Confessions.) In short, the more Newman discovered that, despite the Church penetrating ever deeper into the Christian mystery down through the centuries, the Catholic Church and her doctrine remained essentially the same, the more he was compelled to place himself under the Church’s maternal care. Newman provides a marvelous account of this historical development in a work published the same year as his reception into the Church, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Newman uses various images in the Essay to explain doctrinal development. Some are taken from human or animal life. In the quote above, Newman compares the development of a philosophy or belief to the stream that, as it moves from its source, becomes deeper, broader, and fuller. It is true, as Newman everywhere admits, that there is one body of apostolic teaching, one deposit of faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). For the Catholic tradition, public revelation ceased with Jesus Christ and His Apostles. And thus there is a richness proper to the apostolic age, a purity wholly unique. Nevertheless, the Church of Christ is able, as occasion demands and as necessity dictates, to make explicit what was implicit, to make manifest what was latent. This she does under the guidance of the Spirit of Truth, holding fast to the pristine memory of Christ, her beloved Spouse and Head. The question that persistently haunted Newman during his time in the Church of England was the following: Are doctrines thought to be rather distinctive of the Catholic faith (the Marian dogmas, say, purgatory, the authority of the pope) illegitimate additions and accretions, or are they legitimate, organic developments of the apostolic faith? For the early Newman, it was reasonable for the Roman Church to claim the mark of “catholicity,” a certain universality. But the Church of England, he thought, truly possessed the mark of “apostolicity.” His views on this changed, of course, and Newman came to see the Roman Catholic Church as possessing the mark of apostolicity. Newman is concerned, then, with corruptions and genuine developments. The true Church will have, despite the myriad twists and turns of history, despite (and, in a certain respect, thanks to) the trials and the difficulties and the heresies, genuine developments of the apostolic faith. But how are we to know whether a particular doctrine is genuine or ingenuine, a development or a corruption? Newman suggests seven “notes” of the genuine development of an idea. The analysis here is somewhat “scientific” and speculative, since he is laying out principles, but it is also arguably more literary. The first note is “Preservation of Type.” There is an analogy here with creaturely growth. Chicks do not grow into fish, nor does a baby human degenerate into a brute. There is something similar with ideas. In short, even if an idea does not manifest itself in the same external image, there ought to be substantial identity for a true development. The second note is “Continuity of Principles.” Are the principles undergirding a particular idea themselves consistent, in continuity, or have they been altered? “Power of Assimilation” is the third note. Here again we see the likeness of this note in nature. Living organisms take things in, absorb them, incorporate them. The power to incorporate or assimilate is thus a property of life, and it is likewise the property of a living idea, an idea as present in minds living and acting in the world. The fourth note Newman proposes is “Logical Sequence.” When we look back upon the historical development of a doctrine, do we see in the process a naturalness and organic quality? In short, a later development must be in some way the logical outcome or result of the original teaching. For one with no knowledge of trees and their development, an acorn may bear no resemblance to the mature oak tree. But for one who understands, the process is intelligible, and the mature tree bears the marks of a “logical” sequence. Newman’s fifth note is “Anticipation of Its Future.” Sometimes we can see in an idea, because we know something of its nature and tendencies, hints of its future development. Perhaps we can see in a small child hints and anticipations of his future. Newman uses the example of St. Athanasius, “elected Bishop by his playfellows.” The sixth note is “Conservative Action Upon Its Past.” A development which reverses and contradicts the course of doctrine which has been developed before it is certainly corrupt, whereas a genuine development illustrates and corroborates (as opposed to obscuring and “correcting”) the body of thought from which it proceeds. Like our Lord, these developments come not to destroy but to fulfill. The seventh and final note is “Chronic Vigor.” The basic idea here is that corruptions tend to fizzle out, to dissipate over time, whereas genuine developments are marked by constancy and duration. Heresies, then, are short-lived; Newman says that they are in some odd intermediate state between life and death. Summarizing all of these notes, Newman writes, “To guarantee [an idea’s] own substantial unity, it must be seen to be one in type, one in its system of principles, one in its unitive power towards externals, one in its logical consecutiveness, one in the witness of its early phases to its later, one in the protection which its later extend to its earlier, and one in its union of vigour with continuance, that is, in its tenacity.” Granted that Newman’s theory of development is not the only one out there, his is certainly worthy of careful and prayerful consideration. His Essay is not an easy read, and he assumes a fair amount of knowledge of (intellectual) history from the reader. But this great 19th century convert to Catholicism provides us with strong reasons to believe the Catholic Church’s claim to be, in Christ, “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), the faithful guardian of the apostolic teaching. In her, as she lives and acts in the world, Christian doctrine develops, as ideas in the world are wont to do, yet without undermining or corrupting anything. As we reflect on God’s Revelation this year, let us give thanks to God for the truth of Christ and for the deep, board, and full stream from which we may freely drink.

The Bible & the Life of Grace

I recall teaching a Sacred Scripture course a couple of years ago and scandalizing a student or two with the above quote. “Is St. Augustine denying the importance of the Bible?” The Doctor of Grace is doing nothing of the kind, though it is not a mystery why this quote may initially cause some consternation. His point here is a profound one. The end or purpose or goal of Sacred Scripture is the sanctification of human beings. God revealed Himself in order to draw us to Himself. The Bible, then, God’s written word, is meant to lead the Christian to the perfection of charity. Notice St. Augustine’s language of one who rests upon and keeps a firm hold upon the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. This is someone who has reached maturity or perfection in the moral life. An analogy might be helpful here. Consider human law, the civil law with which we are all familiar. The law exists to make men just, to make them virtuous, to make them good citizens. What happens when one in fact becomes virtuous? There is a sense in which the virtuous man has no further need of the law. But this is not because the law is worthless or ineffective. Indeed, it signifies the goodness and efficacy of the law and indicates that the citizen has achieved the very end of the law. What it means is that the citizen has conformed himself to the law to such an extent that the law has become connatural to him; the law is so deeply rooted in him that he acts well habitually, without needing the force or coercion of the law. In a similar manner, the one who has been conformed perfectly to the law of Christ in faith, hope, and charity has achieved the end of the Scriptures, namely, human sanctification. To reach Christian perfection is to live radically by the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who inspired the sacred page. St. Augustine points to people who have lived the Christian life without having consistent access to the Bible. The most extreme example would be the hermit who lives a life of quiet contemplation alone. As we focus this year on Divine Revelation, which is God’s free act of self-disclosure, His lifting the veil so that we might gaze into His inner mystery, let us give thanks for Sacred Scripture. Whether we have drunk so deeply of the wellspring that we need in a sense only to teach others, or if we ourselves still need instruction, the Bible is a wonderful gift.

Faith: The Misunderstood Virtue

Though the term "faith" exists even in our increasingly secular age, it is arguably a word misunderstood by many who use it. Take a moment to consider your own response to the question, posed perhaps by a non-Christian seeking after the truth: "What is faith?" Is it an opinion you have about God, the world, or human beings? If so, it is not faith. Is it something you hold to be true from time to time, albeit with the dread that necessarily accompanies doubt? If so, it is not faith. I have presented the bad news first. Many have misconceptions about the nature of faith. This is bad news because faith is vital for us as human beings destined to be with God forever. Think of our Lord's words in Mark 1:15, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel." Belief, then, faith, is the proper response to the coming of God's kingdom. Without faith, as Hebrews 11:6 tells us, it is impossible to please God. If the bad news is that there are not a few misconceptions about faith, the good news is this: Faith is far richer and more glorious than our misconceptions of it (and indeed, even than our accurate notions). Let us start with what we might call "natural faith." To believe is an act of the mind, and we perform this act frequently. Imagine that I approach you and reveal my name to you. In this act of self-disclosure, I have communicated to you a certain truth, namely, the truth about my name. Unless you have some sufficiently grave reason to suspect the falsity of my self-disclosure (perhaps I am a notorious liar or a lunatic), you assent to the truth of my words. Notice, you assent not because you know my name. You assent because your will moves your intellect to do so, in view of some good (the good of friendship, say). We perform this kind of mental act all the time. The reality of our belonging to this particular male and this particular female (our parents) is something largely a matter of faith, of believing. Now, it is true that the will does not always move our intellect to assent for the sake of a legitimate good. The persons who raised us could be deceiving us, after all. Even still, the act of believing is (or can be) rationally justified. The legitimacy of the assent is proportionate to the trustworthiness of the person communicating something to us. Supernatural faith is something like natural faith. It is, to use St. Augustine's definition, "to think with assent." There is a significant difference, however, for supernatural faith is given to us by God, by the One who can neither deceive nor be deceived. Faith is a "theological" virtue because it is a divine gift. It is something that radically exceeds our natural human capacity to know. Just as grace itself does not destroy nature, but rather elevates and perfects it, so too does faith elevate and perfect the intellect. But faith is also called theological because its object is God. Faith, as an act of assent to the God who is Truth, is made to be the kind of act it is by God Himself. We are given something of a definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1, "Now faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not." The sacred author is speaking here of what is often called living or formed faith, the saving faith mentioned by St. Paul in Galatians 5:6, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love." It is not the barren, lifeless faith described by St. James in chapter two of his epistle, a faith that even the demons possess. The main point here in Hebrews is that faith, supernatural faith that is animated by charity, is the beginning of eternal life in us. It is for this reason, at least according to theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas, that the sacred author calls faith a "substance." We have a foretaste and down payment, even in our wayfaring state, of the life of heaven. In faith, the "things to be hoped for," namely, intimate knowledge of God, the life of heaven, supernatural communion with the Divine Persons, come to be in us. Faith is that whereby the knowledge we will have in heavenly glory comes to be in us, albeit in a veiled and incipient way. Faith, then, the first of the theological virtues, is the beginning of eternal life and the principle of drawing near to God. One may wonder what the term "evidence" means in Hebrews 11:1. Faith is in some manner "the evidence of things that appear not." St. Thomas says that "evidence" here means the result of evidence. In other words, just as evidence leads us to adhere firmly to some truth, so does God move us to adhere firmly to His revealed truth. Notice that this firmness distinguishes faith from acts of the mind such as opinion, suspicion, and doubt. But because the firm assent concerns "things that appear not," faith is distinguished from knowledge and understanding, since for these latter two we need something apparent. Far from being contrary to reason, faith is super or supra-rational. It transcends the whole order of natural reason even if it does not contradict or undermine it; the higher does not negate the lower. St. Thomas says that the "definition" of Hebrews 11:1 amounts to this: faith is a habit of the mind, whereby eternal life is begun in us, making the intellect assent to what is non-apparent (ST II-II, q. 4, a. 1, resp.). How often faith is misunderstood! How often we hear faith spoken of as a feeling, as an opinion to be discarded when it becomes inconvenient, as a Kierkegaardian leap with a dubious relationship to truth and reality. On the contrary, supernatural faith is an assent to the God who reveals, the God who wills in heavenly glory fully to manifest Himself to us. It is the beginning of eternal life even now in this vale of tears. Let us pray, then, for the gift of faith, that we may know God even as He knows Himself, and consequently hope in His promises and love Him fervently.

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Advent & the Coming of Christ

Advent is perhaps the most overlooked and forgotten season on the liturgical calendar. After all, at least in the United States, it proceeds Thanksgiving and precedes Christmas, two days with great cultural/societal influence. Though both are times of preparation before major feasts, Lent tends to overshadow Advent with its own penitential practices. But the Church offers us Advent for a reason, as a time of preparation for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is what the word "advent" (from the Latin ad+venire) means, after all—a coming or arrival. The first question we might ask about this season is, "What advent of our Lord are we celebrating?" The most obvious answer is that we are celebrating Jesus's coming 2,000 years ago, as when we celebrate the Nativity on December 25. But the Church also sets before us two additional advents. The first is the coming of Christ to us here and now, in the liturgy of the Church, say, especially in the Holy Eucharist. Christ comes among us daily to fill us with His grace and conform us to Himself. The second is His Parousia, His future coming at the end of time. As Christians, we wait in hopeful anticipation for Christ's glorious return. We make our own the words of St. Paul: "Our Lord, come!" And we echo St. John in saying, "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!" What are some things we can do to prepare for this threefold coming of the Lord? Again, Lent is not the only season during which we should practice prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We often think of the last, since gift-giving is so prominent during Advent and Christmas, but as a general principle, use these means to prepare your heart for Christ's coming. Advent is at once a season of joy in expectation of the Lord's Nativity and a time of sobriety and penance as we anticipate the Lord's just judgment on the Last Day. In terms of more concrete or specific devotions to adopt, there are many worthy of recommendation. Perhaps the best known is the advent wreath, a wreath of evergreens to which are fastened four candles. There are typically three purple candles and one rose/pink candle, and every Sunday of Advent one more candle is lit until at last all are lit as a sign of the true Light's coming. If you have children, gather them around the wreath each night, especially on Sundays, and pray together in preparation for Christmas. Another custom, not as widespread in the United States, is to have your children write letters to the Child Jesus on the eve of St. Nicholas's Day (that is, on December 5, anticipating the feast the next day). These letters often contain lists of desired presents for Christmas. Have your children hope that these letters, through the intercession of St. Nicholas and the holy angels, will make their way to Jesus. Incorporate this practice into your family prayer in the evening. If you have a Nativity Scene or something similar, prepare the manger for the Christ Child. Some use small pieces of straw to make a fitting bed, each piece of straw used as a token of a prayer or charitable work done throughout the day. Have your children place these tokens in the manger each night. As your children are preparing their hearts for the Lord's coming, they are also preparing a warm and soft bed for Christ. Finally, reciting or chanting the "O Antiphons" is a beautiful practice for the whole family. Beginning on December 17 and continuing through December 23, these prayers highlight different titles or attributes of Christ (O Sapientia; O Adonai; O Radix Jesse; O Clavis David; O Oriens; O Rex Gentium; O Emmanuel). Reflecting on the mystery of Christ should inflame the heart so that it burns with anticipation for Christmas. Whatever you choose to do, avoid the often-shallow practices of our post-Christian culture and receive the Advent season from the Church; it is a gift anticipating the Gift that is Christ and His salvation.

Faith of our Fathers: St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153 A.D.) has been hailed by many as “the last of the Fathers” and was perhaps the greatest saint and teacher of his age. Among those who accord St. Bernard this title stands Pope Pius XII. And he adds a further title, “Doctor Mellifluus,” the Mellifluous Doctor, explaining in a 1953 encyclical of the same name the holiness and wisdom of St. Bernard. The first title expresses the character of the man’s teaching: it is, at its core, patristic. The second manifests the character of the man himself: St. Bernard was so conformed to the mind of Christ that from his mouth came wisdom as flowing honey (in Latin, mel means honey, and the verb fluere means to flow). Among St. Bernard’s wise teachings is his account of the nature, source, and purpose of wisdom itself. We catch a glimpse of his teaching in the quote above, which comes from his commentary on the Song of Songs. Many have commented on this biblical text. It is more than simply erotic poetry. It teaches us about the relationship between the soul and God and between the Church and Christ. God loves us and lavishes His gifts upon us, as a groom bestows gifts upon his beloved bride. In the quote above, St. Bernard is reflecting on the gift of wisdom in the human soul. Before we break down the quote, though, it will be helpful to point out some aspects of St. Bernard’s teaching on wisdom. First, wisdom for St. Bernard is bound up with intellect and will. To be sure, it is an intellectual perfection, and its subject is the human intellect. But wisdom also impacts the things we love and the way we live; without the warmth of love, the intellect becomes cold and lifeless, susceptible to arrogance and pride. Second, wisdom is something divine, a gift from above. Rather than relying on our own powers, we ought to seek supernatural wisdom from God. More than this, wisdom for St. Bernard has a Christological dimension (in other words, it is focused on Christ). Third, wisdom requires the virtue of humility. True wisdom does not encourage one to boast, but to submit humbly to God. Notice what the quote says about wisdom. It enters the mind, yes, to purify and perfect, to educate and enlighten. But it also “heals and renews the palate of the heart.” Why does he use the language of “palate” here? For St. Bernard, wisdom involves a certain “tasting.” He connects the Latin word for wisdom, sapientia, and the Latin word for taste, sapor. Think of the words of Psalm 34: “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” Wisdom, then, especially divine wisdom, means tasting the goodness of God, relishing in what is good. Tasting of the Lord’s goodness ensures that our intellectual endeavors do not become dry and insipid or tasteless. The wise person is the one who has trained his or her palate to delight in good things and to shun evil things. We can speak of a certain natural wisdom, a natural intellectual perfection that helps us to order things well. But the Mellifluous Doctor is primarily concerned with supernatural wisdom. And this wisdom is given to us by God. It cannot be found among created things, nor can human beings seize it without divine aid. Think about Job 28: “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’ and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’…. God understands the way to it, and he knows its place.” The Good News is, of course, that eternal Wisdom has taken on flesh, has become human, has tabernacled among us (John 1:14). Jesus Christ is, as St. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 1:24, “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” We grow in wisdom when we conform ourselves to Jesus, when we learn from Him. He is our one true Teacher and Master (see Matthew 23:8-9). As the Word, eternally begotten of the Father, He is in a unique position to reveal the Father to us: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18). What is the effect of wisdom when it “gains admission to the soul”? St. Bernard says that wisdom overcomes malice and expels the relish for evil, replacing it with a relish for virtue. In other words, wisdom makes evil, which until now has been pleasant and appetizing to us, seem to us bitter and unappetizing. Informed by divine wisdom, we seek after and enjoy the good of virtue. Purifying the intellect and renewing the spiritual palate involves revealing to the soul the “foolishness of following the senses.” The created things around us are not themselves bad, nor are our senses bad that give us sensible contact with real things. But Bernard’s message here is the same as the Pauline message: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (Romans 8:5). Having wisdom means attending to what is highest, to what is ultimate, and ordering our lives accordingly. This process of overcoming malice and regaining a relish for the good necessarily involves humility. This virtue itself involves a recognition that all we have, whether natural or supernatural, comes from God, as we saw above in the case of wisdom. St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 4:7 come to mind here: “What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” The virtue of humility cooperates with wisdom to provide man with an accurate understanding of his place in the created order. This understanding then guides his moral action. The ultimate example of humility is our Lord, who takes on the form of a servant in order to die for our sake (see Philippians 2). But St. Bernard also sees in our Lord’s Mother the meeting of wisdom and humility. In his Sermons on the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Bernard commends to the reader the unparalleled humility of Mary. In her fiat and subsequent Magnificat, our Lady humbles herself before the angel and before God, praising God for all He has done for her. On the one hand, Mary is judged worthy of a reverence exceeding every other creature, whether human person or angelic. On the other hand, Mary herself is aware that all she has is a gift from God, that her plenitude of grace is wholly gratuitous. This we ought also to imitate, if we are to root out pride and find favor with God. As we focus this year on God’s revelation, which is His free act of self-disclosure, let us ask God for the virtue of wisdom, a virtue so beautifully explained by the Mellifluous Doctor. And, through the intercession of St. Bernard and of our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, may we obtain a relish for wisdom, “than which there is no greater good.”