Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Insanity of Sproul


Last month saw the final days of American Presbyterian theologian R.C. Sproul, longtime champion of Reformed theology and vocal critic of atheism and Catholicism alike. It is doubtful that many of our readers know anything about Dr. Sproul, but his radio program through Pennsylvania-based Ligonier Ministries was a staple of my formative years. This program served as my introduction to systematic theology and scriptural commentary, and it was far more substantial than most of the material generated in Evangelical Protestant circles.

Dr. Sproul was unafraid to remind his listeners about the theology of Sir Luther—Calvinist though he was—and what still separated them from the Catholic Church. He was a brutal opponent of the Catholic-Lutheran ecumenical document Evangelicals and Catholics Together (1994) about which he once said, “Somebody is preaching a different gospel and when Rome condemned the Protestant declaration of justification by faith alone, I believe that Rome when placing the anathema on sola fide placed the anathema of God upon themselves.” He was no respecter of persons nor of niceness, though his behavior could hardly be called base or rude. He simply knew where he stood and was unafraid to preach the conclusions of that stance.

The Young Reformed (aka New Calvinist) movement that peaked in the early 2000s bore some of Sproul’s influence, though perhaps more from John “Desiring God” Piper and Mark Driscoll. The early American Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards enjoyed a brief resurgence, and the movement’s proto-hipster population also attempted to appropriate G.K. Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor to supplement Calvinism’s noticeable lack of non-homiletic literary culture.

When Sproul was not singing the praises of early Reformation luminaries, he was pretending that St. Augustine’s theology was harmonious with Calvin’s. He also spoke highly of St. Thomas Aquinas, although he was slightly more honest about the latter’s peculiarly Catholic theology.

The primary concern of Sproul’s theological exegesis was the sovereign holiness of God, and the infinite terror engendered by the realization of the utter otherness of Divinity. His popular series The Holiness of God included lectures on “The Trauma of Holiness” and “The Insanity of Luther.” This separatist view of the divine nature was at the root of Sproul’s so-called “doctrines of grace” (i.e., Calvinism), and worked its way through doctrines of predestination, of the limitation of God’s love to the elect, of the “divine rape” of grace, all the way to the admission that on the Cross the divine nature of the God the Son “turned his back” on the human nature. (Protestant theology has always been uncomfortable with the intimacy of God with humanity that the Incarnation necessarily implies, and Sproul was more open than most about how much of Luther’s thought leads to Christological heresy.)

I lost track of Sproul after my reception into the Church, but by all accounts he continued to preach and publish until his health failed him in late 2017. He was well read in literature, philosophy, history, and science in addition to his encyclopedic knowledge of Protestant theology. He was a great practitioner of the art of rhetoric. He possessed an undying and irrational devotion to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Of his like one cannot find among his peers, and I have no doubt he could preach circles around the vast majority of American Catholic priests. He was not given to sentimentalities nor to shielding his flock from harsh truths.

In one of his many near-poetic expositions on the inevitability of death, he once wrote,
In his final moments my father tried to leave me with a legacy to live by. He sought to overcome his own agony by encouraging me. He was heroic; I shrank from his words in cowardice. I could not face what he had to face. I pled ignorance as I only understood enough of his words to recoil from them. He said, “Son, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”… My father was speaking from a posture of victory. He knew who he was and where he was going. But all I could hear in those words was that he was going to die.
On Thursday, December 14, 2017, the feast of the poet-saint Venantius Fortunatus, Robert Charles Sproul died surrounded by family and by his fellow pastors and elders. Once he wrote, “As fearsome as death it is, it is nothing compared with meeting a holy God.” How fearsome it must have been for him to come face to face with the God about whom he had taught so many heresies, after he had actively prevented so many baptized persons from entering into the Church Catholic. “You go round about the sea and the land to make one proselyte; and when he is made, you make him the child of hell twofold more than yourselves. Woe to you, blind guides.”

There is a harsh truth, indeed.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Miracle at Cana: Pious Impiety?


Today is the feast of Theophany, or Epiphany. Before the celebration of Christmas began in the fourth century, the various manifestations of the Godhead-made-Man were recalled by the Church on this day, namely the birth of Christ, the visit of the gentile astrologers, the Baptism of Our Lord by St. John in the Jordan, and the transformation of water into wine during a wedding at Cana. The Lord's Baptism in the Jordan is now on the octave day of Epiphany, completing the week wit the revelation of the Holy Trinity, and the visit of the Magi occupies most of the feast proper. It is the last act of Theophany, however, that seasonally gives this writer the heeby-jeebies, and not because of the miracle itself.

As a child I read the story of the Miracle at Cana not as Christ doing something against His will because His Mother told Him to do so, but Christ drawing out His Mother's pity so He could in turn show His own compassion for the bridegroom and bride. It may not be a "Traddie" idea, merely a devotionalist idea, but whenever the Miracle of Cana is recounted in the second Sunday after Epiphany, the Roman Catholic blogosphere seems to saturate with articles on why devotion to Mary is essential for Christian life—and it is—on grounds that seem faulty. It usually goes something like "Jesus is both justice and mercy. Mary is all mercy." Call me an effrontery to piety, but is this not quite impious? Ought we call Our Lord and God's justice something else from His mercy, as though the two are separate? Or as though they oppose each other? Or as if one crowds out the other within the infinity of His Godhead? Or that His justice is supplanted by His Mother's kindness?

The Greek Theotokon texts for the Church Offices often employ phraseology like "No one knows a Son like a Mother" and commends all our confidence in prayer to the Blessed Mother for this very purpose. Along a similar vein, one of the most beautiful Roman collects in the Sundays after Pascha (one of the great Latin treasure troves) is this:
"O God, Who makest the faithful to be of one mind and will, grant to Thy people the grace to love what Thou dost command and to desire what Thou dost promise, that amid the change of the world, our hearts may there be fixed where true joys are found."
Is this not true of Mary more than it is of any other saint? That she, above all, understands what Her Son desires and can point the faithful to His will? The multiplication of Marian apparitions in the last few centuries, particularly that from Fatima, carry messages from heaven about Christ's dissatisfaction and desires for the world, not the Virgin's free-standing mercy.

Interestingly, the most common depiction in all Western art, after the Crucifixion, is probably the Annunciation. Even the Crucifixion rarely excluded Mary until the years after the Reformation, with the Virgin "swooning" or appearing opposite Saint John on Rood screens. In Greek iconography Mary is almost never shown without Christ; the Deesis images and the Seat of Wisdom are especially poignant reminders of the congruity between the Mother and Divine Son. And yet more modern religious art, often kitsch as can be, has Mary standing on a globe, almost ruling the world and crushing sin on her own, without her Son in sight. The common Catholic who prays in front of such an image in the local parish likely does not share the dodgy Mariology that elicited such artwork, but that same Mariology continues in some quiet, narrow corners of the Church whenever the Second Sunday after Epiphany of Our Lady of Mount Carmel rolls around.


Monday, January 1, 2018

Lux Fulgebit: A Review


Just as last year ended with a review, so this year begins with a review. Today we look at Lux Fulgebit: the Mass at Dawn of Christmas Day, a recording by the Schola Cantorum of Saint Mary's Catholic Church in Norwalk, Connecticut. Immediately, two distinct features make this recording worth a listen: it presents a hitherto unheard English Renaissance setting for the ordinary of the Mass by William Rasar; and that it is a full of a rarely heard Mass, as the second Mass of Christmas day is routinely neglected for the midnight and daytime Masses.

Lux Fulgebit is comprised of serious scholarship and recording effort. The Mass Christe Iesu, Rasar's only extant work, had to be consolidated from two manuscripts in order to present the full work, including the tenor part from a separate tradition. The decision to contextualize Rasar's Christe Iesu within a Mass means the complete Mass of Christmas at Dawn, replete with the collects and commemorations of St. Anastasia, the lesson, gradual, Gospel, preface, bells for the consecration, the Pater Noster, and the dismissal—all from the Roman liturgy despite the Mass's author having written in England in 1515.

The Mass begins with an organ prelude, the Introit, and a plainsong Kyrie before transitioning into the Gloria, which, with the Benedictus, was my favorite track on Lux Fulgebit. Because so few voices sing on the tracks, the parts are clear and harmonize very well, especially the treble parts, presumably sung by a woman rather than a boy, but without any of the vibrato or "breathy" sound one typically hears with the female voice. The choir paces itself while and resists any undue need to embellishment, instead letting the natural harmonies within the work's key provide layering of sound so characteristic of the English Renaissance and so atypical of the later "chirpy" polyphony.

Unfortunately, the plainsong and clerical parts fail to meet the same standard of excellence the polyphony achieves. Perhaps the sound equipment was too tuned or the choice of recording setting was not amicable to chant, but the Gregorian melodies are flat, without resonance, and far too intelligible in a bad way; one can hear the moisture of the cantors' mouths and that hiss every time a word ends with the letter "s". The real tragedy is that I am familiar with this choir's singing from when I lived in Connecticut and I know they can do much better this.

Is Lux Fulgebit a triumph? No, but it is a very good first recording that advances awareness of Rasar's Christe Iesu Mass and it is a pleasant listen. I am looking forward to St. Mary's next offering.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Ordo for the Ordinary Old Rite, Not the Extraordinary New Rite


How is the 1962 liturgy different than what preceded it? For one, Pius XII “renewed” Holy Week by tossing it asunder and concocting something else. There are also fewer commemorations than the one to six one could feasibly observe on most days in the old rite. Is that it? A few less prayers and one week of the year a bit wonky? What if I were to tell you every day of the year is different in 1962 from what came before it. While some days, like the Sunday of Our Lord’s Resurrection, only vary minutely, large swatches of the year are quite different from the traditional Roman liturgy.



Enter exhibit A, the days preceding Palm Sunday during Passiontide. The most obvious difference is that the 1962 liturgy admits no such thing as Palm Sunday other than as an alternative name, curiously calling the day the “Second Sunday in Passion Time.” What about the days before the Second Sunday in Passion Time? Wednesday calls for Saint Benedict’s three nocturne Office and a Mass with a commemoration and proper Last Gospel of the feria. Friday anticipates the suffering of Christ in one week by contemplating the suffering of His Immaculate Mother now, again commemorating the feria. And Saturday is the feast of Saint Gabriel the Archangel. Both of these feasts would treat the season just like Saint Benedict’s feast, a full liturgy with proper and thorough commemoration of the season, so as not to omit it.




Why, surely the 1962 liturgy, which—unlike the big, bad “Novus Ordo”—has feasts of saints plentifully and commemorations, does this right? No. In fact it disregards most of it out of hand. You see, Carissime, the old rite does not permit saints to replace Sundays of penitential seasons, but it will permit them to replace weekdays under certain conditions. Perhaps saints ought not make such a splash during a time of fasting and prayers. Or perhaps Saint Benedict is not a minor saint, but the father of Western monasticism and the man whose legacy saved Europe for Christ’s sake. Perhaps the feast of the Seven Dolors of the Blessed Virgin is not a lollipop Marian devotion, but a preparation for the Passion of Christ and the antecedent to the surviving September feast, which is centuries newer. And perhaps Saint Gabriel is celebrated on the 24th of March because the following day is ordinarily the Annunciation, when God firmly entered into the fullness of time for our salvation by the fiat of the Virgin and the words of the same archangel.



These differences, sometimes subtle and sometimes broad, are exactly why every traditionalist, cleric or lay liturgy-ophile, should be armed with the 2018 edition of the St. Lawrence Press Ordo Recitandi Officii Divini Sacrique Peragendi. This Ordo, unlike those of Ecclesia Dei, the British Latin Mass Society, the FSSPX, or FSSP, follows the liturgy as it existed before the gears of change that brought about the liturgical revolution began to churn. It is the last Office, Missal, Gradual, and Ritual that Montini, Pacelli, Braga, and Bugnini did not touch, and is consequently the last calendar that a saint from 1900 and 900 would recognize, especially during major liturgical seasons. Ought it be used to its full extent?—i.e. the use of the Roman liturgy prior to the “extraordinary form”? It is really not much of a moral dilemma. One should follow the tradition of the Church and her mens of worship, which, come to think of it, precluded committee fabrications until quite recently. There really is not much dilemma as to what one should do on May 1st, when one can either follow the 7th/8th century feast of Ss. Philip & James or celebrate the [rather dated] political outreach to communists called Joe the Worker, which includes texts about construction workers joyously listening to Pius XII talk in St. Peter’s square.


Not only is the St. Lawrence Press Ordo valuable to a full-on traditionalist parish, but also to those who are searching for enough bottle to take the final plunge; it is good for those getting a feel for tradition and looking to filter good practices, like commemorations or Monday Requiem Masses during Lent, into the current extraordinary form of the Pauline Mass, the 1962 Missal. One could, for instance, celebrate a votive Mass of the Holy Name of Mary on the Sunday after her September Nativity or that of St. Joachim on the Sunday after her Assumption. One can introduce the proper Last Gospel, as we recently had at the third Mass of Christmas day.

Lastly, the St. Lawrence Press Ordo is worth buying because of the increasing popularity of the old rites of Holy Week and the traditional rubrics (both ritual and textual) for Sunday Masses. Not only does the Ordo help with such work, but it made these modern efforts possible in the first place by preserving and promoting liturgical orthopraxis after Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre acquiesced to the Vatican’s 1983 request that he switch to 1962 precisely because it was published during Vatican II. Without preserving knowledge of the rubrics and keeping the old rite as a real, living tradition it is doubtful we would be seeing the resurgence of the genuine old rite that we do today. If anyone has doubts, look at the Holy Week pictures on New Liturgical Movement. I never thought I’d see a Presanctified Mass at Holy Innocents in New York, but I have.


Monday, December 25, 2017

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!


If you are looking for some spiritual edification beyond Mass, look no further. Here are the Mattins lessons for the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ as well as the Introit, my favorite in the Roman rite, for the third Mass of the day. As they say in the East, "Christ is born! Glorify Him!"

From Isaiah:


1 At the first time the land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephtali was lightly touched: and at the last the way of the sea beyond the Jordan of the Galilee of the Gentiles was heavily loaded.
2 The people that walked in darkness, have seen a great light: to them that dwelt in the region of the shadow of death, light is risen.
3 Thou hast multiplied the nation, and hast not increased the joy. They shall rejoice before thee, as they that rejoice in the harvest, as conquerors rejoice after taking a prey, when they divide the spoils.
4 For the yoke of their burden, and the rod of their shoulder, and the sceptre of their oppressor thou hast overcome, as in the day of Median.
5 For every violent taking of spoils, with tumult, and garment mingled with blood, shall be burnt, and be fuel for the fire.
6 For a child is born to us, and a son is given to us, and the government is upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counsellor, God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come, the Prince of Peace.
1 Be comforted, be comforted, my people, saith your God.
2 Speak ye to the heart of Jerusalem, and call to her: for her evil is come to an end, her iniquity is forgiven: she hath received of the hand of the Lord double for all her sins.
3 The voice of one crying in the desert: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the wilderness the paths of our God.
4 Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough ways plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh together shall see, that the mouth of the Lord hath spoken.
6 The voice of one, saying: Cry. And I said: What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the glory thereof as the flower of the field.
7 The grass is withered, and the flower is fallen, because the spirit of the Lord hath blown upon it. Indeed the people is grass:
8 The grass is withered, and the flower is fallen: but the word of our Lord endureth for ever.
1 Arise, arise, put on thy strength, O Sion, put on the garments of thy glory, O Jerusalem, the city of the Holy One: for henceforth the uncircumcised, and unclean shall no more pass through thee.
2 Shake thyself from the dust, arise, sit up, O Jerusalem: loose the bonds from off thy neck, O captive daughter of Sion.
3 For thus saith the Lord: You were sold gratis, and you shall be redeemed without money.
4 For thus saith the Lord God: My people went down into Egypt at the beginning to sojourn there: and the Assyrian hath oppressed them without any cause at all.
5 And now what have I here, saith the Lord: for my people is taken away gratis. They that rule over them treat them unjustly, saith the Lord, and my name is continually blasphemed all the day long.
6 Therefore my people shall know my name in that day: for I myself that spoke, behold I am here.

From St. Leo the Great, Pope of Rome:


Dearly beloved brethren, Unto us is born this day a Saviour. Let us rejoice. It would be unlawful to be sad to-day, for today is Life's Birthday; the Birthday of that Life, Which, for us dying creatures, taketh away the sting of death, and bringeth the bright promise of the eternal gladness hereafter. It would be unlawful for any man to refuse to partake in our rejoicing. All men have an equal share in the great cause of our joy, for, since our Lord, Who is the destroyer of sin and of death, findeth that all are bound under the condemnation, He is come to make all free. Rejoice, O thou that art holy, thou drawest nearer to thy crown! Rejoice, O thou that art sinful, thy Saviour offereth thee pardon! Rejoice also, O thou Gentile, God calleth thee to life! For the Son of God, when the fulness of the time was come, which had been fixed by the unsearchable counsel of God, took upon Him the nature of man, that He might reconcile that nature to Him Who made it, and so the devil, the inventor of death, is met and beaten in that very flesh which hath been the field of his victory.

When our Lord entered the field of battle against the devil, He did so with a great and wonderful fairness. Being Himself the Almighty, He laid aside His uncreated Majesty to fight with our cruel enemy in our weak flesh. He brought against him the very shape, the very nature of our mortality, yet without sin. His birth however was not a birth like other births for no other is born pure, nay, not the little child whose life endureth but a day on the earth. To His birth alone the throes of human passion had not contributed, in His alone no consequence of sin had had -part. For His Mother was chosen a Virgin of the kingly lineage of David, and when she was to grow heavy with the sacred Child, her soul had already conceived Him before her body. She knew the counsel of God announced to her by the Angel, lest the unwonted events should alarm her. The future Mother of God knew what was to be wrought in her by the Holy Ghost, and that her modesty was absolutely safe.

Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us give thanks to God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Ghost: Who, for His great love wherewith He loved us, hath had mercy on us and, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, that in Him we might be a new creature, and a new workmanship. Let us then put off the old man with his deeds (Col. iii. 9); and, having obtained a share in the Sonship of Christ, let us renounce the deeds of the flesh. Learn, O Christian, how great thou art, who hast been made partaker of the Divine nature, and fall not again by corrupt conversation into the beggarly elements above which thou art lifted. Remember Whose Body it is Whereof thou art made a member, and Who is its Head. Remember that it is He That hath delivered thee from the power of darkness and hath translated thee into God's light, and God's kingdom.

From St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome:


By God's mercy we are to say three Masses to-day, so that there is not much time left for preaching; but at the same time the occasion of the Lord's Birth-day itself obliges me to speak a few words. I will first ask why, when the Lord was to be born, the world was enrolled? Was it not to herald the appearing of Him by Whom the elect are enrolled in the book of life? Whereas the Prophet saith of the reprobate Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous. Then, the Lord is born in Bethlehem. Now the name Bethlehem signifieth the House of Bread, and thus it is the birth-place of Him Who hath said, I am the Living Bread, Which came down from heaven. We see then that this name of Bethlehem was prophetically given to the place where Christ was born,.because it was there that He was to appear in the flesh by Whom the souls of the faithful are fed unto life eternal. He was born, not in His Mother's house, but away from home. And this is a mystery, showing that this our mortality into which He was born was not the home of Him Who is begotten of the Father before the worlds.

From St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan:


Behold the beginning of the Church. Christ is born, and the shepherds watch; shepherds, to gather together the scattered sheep of the Gentiles, and to lead them into the fold of Christ, that they might no longer be a prey to the ravages of spiritual wolves in the night of this world's darkness. And that shepherd is wide awake, whom the Good Shepherd stirreth up. The flock then is the people, the night is the world, and the shepherds are the Priests. And perhaps he is a shepherd to whom it is said, Be watchful and strengthen, for God hath ordained as the shepherds of His flock not Bishops only, but also Angels.

From St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo


Lest thou shouldest think all things mean, as thou art accustomed to think of things human, hear and digest this The Word was God. Now perhaps there will come forward some Arian unbeliever, and say that the Word of God was a creature. How can the Word of God be a creature, when it was by the Word that all creatures were made? If He be a creature, then there must have been some other Word, not a creature, by which He was made. And what Word is that? If thou sayest that it was by the word of the Word Himself that He was made, I tell thee that God had no other, but One Only-begotten Son. But if thou say not that it was by the word of the Word Himself that He was made, thou art forced to confess that. He by Whom all things were made was not Himself made at all. Believe the Gospel.


A Very Merry and Blessed Feast of the Nativity to All!


Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve: Born According to the Flesh

Nativity with Ss. Francis & Lawrence
by Caravaggio
source: wikipedia.org
In the year 5199th from the creation of the world, when in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, in the year 2959th from the flood, in the year 2015th from the birth of Abraham, in the year 1510th from the going forth of the people of Israel out of Egypt under Moses, in the year 1032nd from the anointing of David as King, in the 65th week according to the prophecy of Daniel, in the 194th Olympiad, in the 752nd from the foundation of the city of Rome, in the 42nd year of the reign of the Emperor Octavian Augustus, in the 6th age of the world, while the whole earth was at peace, Jesus Christ, Himself Eternal God and Son of the Eternal Father, being pleased to hallow the world by His most gracious coming, having been conceived of the Holy Ghost, and when nine months were passed after His conception, (all kneel down) was born of the Virgin Mary at Bethlehem of Judea made Man, Our Lord Jesus Christ was born according to the flesh. 

Saturday, December 23, 2017

O Emmanuel


O Emmanuel, Rex et Legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et salvator earum; veni ad salvandum nos, Domine Deus noster.O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expectation and Saviour of the nations! come and save us, O Lord our God! 
O Emmanuel! King of Peace! thou enterest to-day the city of thy predilection, the city in which thou hast placed thy Temple, - Jerusalem. A few years hence, and the same city will give thee thy Cross and thy Sepulchre: nay, the day will come, on which thou wilt set up thy Judgment-seat within sight of her walls. But, to-day, thou enterest the city of David and Solomon unnoticed and unknown. It lies on thy road to Bethlehem. Thy Blessed Mother and Joseph, her Spouse, would not lose the opportunity of visiting the Temple, there to offer to the Lord their prayers and adoration. They enter; and then, for the first time, is accomplished the prophecy of Aggeus, that great shall be the glory of this last House more than of the first [Agg. ii. 10.] ; for this second Temple has now standing within it an Ark of the Covenant more precious than was that which Moses built; and within this Ark, which is Mary, there is contained the God, whose presence makes her the holiest of sanctuaries. The Lawgiver himself is in this blessed Ark, and not merely, as in that of old, the tablet of stone on which the Law was graven. The visit paid, our living Ark descends the steps of the Temple, and sets out once more for Bethlehem, where other prophecies are to be fulfilled. We adore thee, O Emmanuel! in this thy journey, and we reverence the fidelity wherewith thou fulfillest all that the prophets have written of thee, for thou wouldst give to thy people the certainty of thy being the Messias, by showing them, that all the marks, whereby he was to be known, are to be found in thee. And now, the hour is near; all is ready for thy Birth; come, then, and save us; come, that thou mayest not only be called our Emmanuel, but our Jesus, that is, He that saves us. 
From The Liturgical Year by Dom Gueranger