“Dear friends, at every moment the earth is full of the mercy of God, and nature itself is a lesson for all the faithful in the worship of God. The heavens, the sea and all that is in them bear witness to the goodness and omnipotence of their Creator, and the marvelous beauty of the elements as they obey him demands from the intelligent creation a fitting expression of its gratitude.
But with the return of that season marked out in a special way by the mystery of our redemption, and of the days that lead up to the paschal feast, we are summoned more urgently to prepare ourselves by a purification of spirit. The special note of the paschal feast is this: the whole Church rejoices in the forgiveness of sins. It rejoices in the forgiveness not only of those who are then reborn in holy baptism but also of those who are already numbered among God’s adopted children.
Initially, men are made new by the rebirth of baptism. Yet there still is required a daily renewal to repair the shortcomings of our mortal nature, and whatever degree of progress has been made there is no one who should not be more advanced. All must therefore strive to ensure that on the day of redemption no one may be found in the sins of his former life.
Dear friends, what the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion, so that the Lenten fast enjoined by the apostles may be fulfilled, not simply by abstinence from food but above all by the renunciation of sin.
There is no more profitable practice as a companion to holy and spiritual fasting than that of alms-giving. This embraces under the single name of mercy many excellent works of devotion, so that the good intentions of all the faithful may be of equal value, even where their means are not. The love that we owe both God and man is always free from any obstacle that would prevent us from having a good intention. The angels sang: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. The person who shows love and compassion to those in any kind of affliction is blessed, not only with the virtue of good will but also with the gift of peace.
The works of mercy are innumerable. Their very variety brings this advantage to those who are true Christians, that in the matter of alms-giving not only the rich and affluent but also those of average means and the poor are able to play their part. Those who are unequal in their capacity to give can be equal in the love within their hearts.”
I wrote a draft of this post a few weeks ago, but just now had a chance to go back and finish it. Hence the references to it being February… Enjoy!
It was cold in Grand Rapids this morning. But I had anticipated that: it is February, after all. It was the driving snow storm that caught me off-guard.
Just a few days ago, I had received an email from the proud Michiganders organizing the math teachers’ conference I was due to speak at: we are not cancelling for the weather! So I packed some warm clothes and flew north, drove out to my hotel room by an isolated, rural college campus, and promptly received an email: just kidding, we are, in fact, cancelling the conference, the weather report is now calling for 8 inches of snow.
So with a morning schedule that was suddenly as un-muddied as the newly fallen snow, I wanted to head to Confession and Mass. Actually, that isn’t true: I wanted to stay in bed. To be honest, my spiritual life hasn’t been all that great these last few months. But a friend who spent a summer in Grand Rapids recommended that I visit his parish while I was up north, and something told me I ought to make a point of it.
After an, *ahem* adventurous 6 a.m. journey down an icy interstate, I turned into the church parking lot, only to immediately get stuck in a snow drift. I popped the car into neutral and got out to push it the rest of the way into the as-yet-unplowed parking lot. “I really should have packed some boots for this trip”, I thought to myself as my feet were soaked through my sneakers.
Inside, I was greeted by a beautiful church: cruciform, vaulted ceilings, a soaring reredos, ornate stations still in the Polish language of the original parishioners. And yet, for all its beauty, it was humble: you probably can’t fit more than a couple of hundred people in the pews. A glance at one of the stain glass windows made me realize that the parish is not named for St. Isidore, the Archbishop and Doctor of the Church, but for St. Isidore the Farmer, the simple husband and father who is patron of day-laborers and peasants. It was about 7:15 when I arrived–a full 30 minutes before Mass was due to start–and there was already a healthy line of the faithful who had braved the blizzard to have their Confessions heard.
The priest who celebrated Mass must have been close to 70, but his 6′ frame still stood strong. He offered the Sacrifice in honor the Immaculate Heart, and though his thoughts sometimes wandered during the homily, the point came through as clear as day: devotion to our Lady would strengthen our faith and help us to fight temptation. The simple English liturgy was adorned with Latin chant; the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei echoed in the old building as the snow kept falling outside.
Sometimes I doubt. I think all converts must: Should I have left? Was I hearing from God? Is this really Christ’s Church? But then I find the faithful still holding on to what’s been handed down to them. I find that the prayers of our Lady having been helping me through the storm this whole time. I find Jesus, given to me by the weathered hands of an old Midwestern priest. And then, it doesn’t really matter how brutal the winter is, because He warms my heart with joy.
I bought this painting at an art auction last week. It was made by a group of visually-impaired students at an exceptional education center not far from where I work. Each year, my school auctions off artwork by students at the center to help them raise money for more art supplies. I hung the painting up in my classroom a few days ago, and it’s been turning heads. At first, the reactions are a bit baffled: “Has the math teacher gone post-modern on us? From whence came this Jackson Pollock print that he has hung in defiance of all Geometry?”
But then I explain it to them. Suddenly, they see it for what it is: pure hope. Student and teacher alike take a few minutes to stop and admire it.
You see, there is something deep within us that wants to hope against hope. Amid all the darkness of the world, we know in our hearts that light has to break through eventually. When all of life seems ugly, we believe in the triumph of beauty. Although life in this valley of tears is chaotic, we see the hand of an Artist at work, and we subconsciously remember that we were made to be co-creators. We can’t help it: we have eternity set in our hearts.
And so I love it when blind children paint. In the splattered clouds of color on the canvas, I see ripples of a future hope being brought into the present. Even though it only lasts a moment, we begin to live in the day when the blind shall see, the lame shall walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf shall hear, and the dead will be raised to life. Like all good art, this painting reminds me that “we are now the sons of God; and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be. We know, that, when He shall appear, we shall be like to Him: because we shall see Him as He is. And every one that hath this hope in him, sanctifieth himself, as He also is holy.“
“So without leaving his Father’s glory behind, the Son of God comes down from his heavenly throne and enters the depths of our world, born in an unprecedented order by an unprecedented kind of birth. In an unprecedented order, because one who is invisible at his own level was made visible at ours. The ungraspable willed to be grasped. Whilst remaining pre-existent, he begins to exist in time. The Lord of the universe veiled his measureless majesty and took on a servant’s form. The God who knew no suffering did not despise becoming a suffering man, and, deathless as he is, to be subject to the laws of death. By an unprecedented kind of birth, because it was inviolable virginity which supplied the material flesh without experiencing sexual desire. What was taken from the mother of the Lord was the nature without the guilt. And the fact that the birth was miraculous does not imply that in the lord Jesus Christ, born from the virgin’s womb, the nature is different from ours. The same one is true God and true man.”
~from “The Tome of Leo”, the document which provided much of the theological groundwork for the Council of Chalcedon.
I am sure that many of you have seen the “Saint of the Year ” generator that is being passed around. The idea is that, you are randomly given a “patron saint” for the year, so that you can learn more about a new saint and seek his or her intercession for the 12 months ahead. I don’t usually go for that sort of thing, but I did it last year and it worked out pretty well for me: for 2013, I was given St. Leopold of Austria, who is (among other things) patron of large families. Our second child was born in January of this past year, and we just found out a month or so ago that we are expecting baby #3, so St. Leopold was, in many ways, a fitting saint for me to learn about and start a devotion to.
For 2014, I got Pope St. Leo the Great, one of the greatest Pontiffs of the first millennium (and who has an oddly similar name to my patron from last year). So I began reading the “Tome of Leo,” perhaps the most famous of the ancient Holy Father’s theological writings.
I couldn’t help but notice a certain kinship between the passage from Leo’s Tome that I’ve quoted above, and the von Balthasar quote I shared a couple of days ago: “Christmas is not an event within history, but is rather the invasion of time by eternity.”
Even since patristic times, it seems, there has been this understanding that Christmas was no mere stopping point along the time line. Rather, as we behold the Christ Child in the manger, we come to realize that time itself has been humbled, for the Lord of both time and eternity has come to pay it a visit.
On this, the ninth day of Christmas, let us say again: “O come, let us adore Him…”
The last several weeks of 2013 were for me, much like the rest of the year, marked by both tremendous joy and deep pain.
As evening set on November 30th and the Advent season began, my wife and I discovered wonderful news: we are expecting our third child, due sometime in late July or early August! We made the news public the day after Christmas, and have been both rejoicing as well as asking for the intercession of St. Gerard, patron of expectant mothers.
But then, the very next day, we were struck with the sudden news that my dear friend, Jon, had passed away suddenly from a brain aneurysm. Only in his thirties, Jon has left behind a young widow and grieving parents, siblings, and friends. He is the second groomsman from my wedding to have passed away in the last six months. Any prayers that you can spare for the repose of his soul, as well as for the comfort of his wife, are deeply appreciated.
Hans Urs von Balthasar said: “Christmas is not an event within history, but is rather the invasion of time by eternity.“
This Christmas, I have been forced to think a lot about life and death. These events happen within time, and are marked by great feeling: we cry for joy at the expectation of a child, we weep with grief at the passing of a friend. But so, too, has all of humanity before us… is not all of this just part of the natural cycle of things? You are born one day, some other day you will die…
It is only in light of the Christ Child that all of this takes on a meaning beyond just the immediate concerns of this life. Christmas has forever changed both birth and death. The Infant King we celebrate is God-become-man, and by His birth he hallows the birth of every child, and by His death He sanctifies the death of those who belong to Him. In His person we find an eternal reference point for all that happens within the time that we are given here on Earth. Eternity has indeed invaded time, and time has been lead away captive. Therefore, we do not lose hope.
And so as one year ends and another begins, let us resolve that, whether the next twelve months hold for us life or death, joy or sorrow, we will repeat the refrain we have heard this season: “O come, let us adore Him…”
As someone who loves iconography and the Church’s rich teachings and Traditions surrounding these holy images, I always enjoy reading Reinkat’s posts. Check out this latest one about the Nativity Icon… fascinating and informative!
Originally posted on reinkat:
The Orthodox Christmas icon is a bit different from any depiction of the Nativity of Christ in Western art. It is a bit strange to our eyes, lacking the sentiments and techniques that we are used to seeing. It is even foreign, almost unrecognizable at first glance, but upon careful study, is deeply meaningful and beautiful. Like every icon, each translation of the image differs according to the iconographer’s style and region, but they all have certain image elements in common. The feast of the Nativity was developed in the 4th Century, and by the 6th Century, all of the imagery had been established.
This icon’s purpose is to teach the essential truths of our faith, in this case, the Incarnation of God, and the fact that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. As in all icons, there is no attempt to show depth, or time sequence. Events that took place at different times are all shown on the same plane here. Like the icon above, the following image is Russian, done in a very classic and typical manner, and makes a good sample for studying the symbolism. (I learned most of this information about the theology from Ouspensky’s book: The Meaning of Icons, an excellent resource about iconography.)
I went on a brief rant on Facebook yesterday about an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times which I found remarkably bad. As with many rants, the author wished that it could have been longer… So, below you will find my thoughts a bit more fully expressed. Enjoy!
Aristotle wrote that “all men by nature desire to know.” And yet, too often, educators treat math students as if the pursuit of knowledge is irrelevant to them: truth is nice and all, but what we must give our students is economic benefit.
Sadly, just such an approach was advocated in an editorial in the New York Times this past Sunday. In “Who Says Math Has to Be Boring?”, the author advocates fixing math education in this country by implementing an approach known as STEM—which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—which treats these subjects as an integrated whole. The author would have math class be filled with technology and real-world examples, with the clear aim of preparing students for 21st century careers.
And yet, the reality is that math curricula in the United States have been geared towards this approach, or ones quite similar to it, for a very long time. Today, math education in this country continues to be as much of a failure as ever, despite our consistent push for the pragmatic and the relevant.
The problem is this: as long as we treat math as a tool, as a subject that should be pursued because of its practical, real-world benefits, we will fail at math education. We can only fix math education by showing students that math is first and foremost a pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful, through the use of logic and reason.
The STEM approach has a long pedigree in the American education system. We can properly trace it back to the Pragmatism of John Dewey, who said that an education is that “which increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experience”—as practical and career-oriented approach to education as ever you’ll find. This philosophy was infused into math and science classes with a vengeance in the wake of Sputnik: the Cold War made it so that Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics were the responsibility of every good American, and every math and science teacher’s duty was to prepare the next generation of Rocket Scientists who would defend us from Moscow.
Decades later, we still find ourselves belaboring the practical side of math, only now the menace we face is our economic competition with China. It is now the duty of every math teacher to prepare his students to increase GDP. Of course, this supposedly carries benefits for the math student as well: since, as the theory goes, a math student who is shown the practical benefits of math class will be more motivated to pursue a career in science or engineering, his likelihood of making a high wage will increase substantially. And so, it’s out with the abstract, in with the pragmatic: math education is only seen as being valuable as a loyal handmaiden of our technological enterprise.
But the reality is that the economic benefits of higher math studies are widely known by the general public, including children and teenagers. The fact that accountants and actuaries are well-compensated is so familiar to our students that to repeat it is to indulge in banality. Young people know that high achievement in math class can lead to a rewarding and remunerative career, and yet somehow, no matter how practical we make math class, no matter how subservient we make math to science, technology, and engineering, we cannot stifle the yawns of our students. Math achievement in this country has gone down in the decades since Sputnik; clearly the pragmatic approach is broken.
So in a world where math class is already supremely practical, and yet still overwhelmingly boring, what’s a math teacher to do?
I would have math class be less practical. As long as we treat math as simply another tool in the technological shed, students will find it as interesting as so many wrenches and screwdrivers. We must instead show our students that math is, first and foremost, a relentless pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful. We must orient math class around the use of logic and human reason.
Mathematics as a discipline has always been about using logic and reason to arrive at truth. The great mathematicians of history, from the days of Pythagoras and Euclid, found a supreme beauty in the pursuit of knowledge: they knew that they were proving timeless truths. Practical applications came along, of course, but math found its inspiration and its drive as a branch of philosophy, and as St. Thomas Aquinas said, philosophy arises from awe.
Today, we must give back to our students this beautiful pursuit of the truth. We must allow them to experience the joy of mathematical proof. We must help them train their minds in the use of logic and reason, to think abstractly, and to go after knowledge relentlessly. Anyone can look up a mathematical formula in a book and then punch it into a calculator; only a well-formed mind can find a good argument for why that formula works in the first place. It should be the priority of math teachers to make such well-formed minds.
So, enough with the real-world models and the overuse of technology. For too long, we have given students “real world scenarios” involving right triangles, and then asked them to plug numbers into the Pythagorean Theorem to have the length of the hypotenuse spat back out to them. I would rather spend my time training my students to make good arguments for why the Pythagorean Theorem is always true. Have them play with abstract arguments, have them fail and fail and then finally succeed, and have them always be encouraged to return to the logical pursuit of knowledge with greater vigor the next day. Let the science teachers and the engineering professors worry about the pragmatic side of things, and let the math teachers return to what math has always been about.
Ironically, the approach I am suggesting would actually have enormous practical benefits. Is it hard to imagine that a bridge or a building designed by an engineer who had been taught to love the truth and beauty of mathematics would be a superior product? Moreover, can it not be said that any democracy would be better off with a citizenry who had been immersed from childhood in Logic and Reason? We would have more economic utility from our math classes if we stopped treating math as a mere tool and instead saw it as truth.
The pragmatic side of mathematics will always be with us. But rather than following an instructional approach whose origins lie in a desire to aim missiles at the Soviet Union, let us craft classes designed to show our students how to pursue mathematical truth through Logic and Reason. We owe it to our students, because as Aristotle predicted, they desire to know.