‘Is this not a miracle in itself?’

It’s New Years Eve, and as the year comes to a close I’m reading one of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s sermons and reflecting on the miracle that is every year, that is every month, day, and minute. Every moment we live is a miracle, in that there’s no reason for any of this other than God’s sheer love and willing of our being. In worship, we recognize this gratuitous goodness, along with our inability to repay it or to earn anything, and at the same time the importance of simply thanking God for the goodness that is this life:

On Christmas night the shepherds are addressed by an angel who shines upon them with the blinding glory of God, and they are very much afraid. The tremendous, unearthly radiance shows that the angel is a messenger of heaven and clothes him with an incontrovertible authority. With this authority he commands them not to be afraid but to embrace the great joy he is announcing to them. And while the angel is speaking thus to these poor frightened people, he is joined by a vast number of others, who unite in a “Gloria” praising God in heaven’s heights and announcing the peace of God’s goodwill to men on earth. Then, we read, “the angels went away from them into heaven.” In all probability the singing was very beautiful and the shepherds were glad to listen; doubtless they were sorry when the concert was over and the performers disappeared behind heaven’s curtain. Probably, however, they were secretly a little relieved when the unwonted light of divine glory and the unwonted sound of heavenly music came to an end, and they found themselves once more in their familiar earthly darkness. They probably felt like shabby beggars who had suddenly been set in a king’s audience chamber among courtiers dressed in magnificent robes and were glad to slip away unnoticed and take to their heels.

But the strange thing is that the intimidating glory of the heavenly realm, which has now vanished, has left behind a human glow of joy in their souls, a light of joyous expectation, reinforcing the heavenward-pointing angel’s word and causing them to set out for Bethlehem. Now they can turn their backs on the whole epiphany of the heavenly glory—for it was only a starting point, an initial spark, a stimulus leading to what was really intended; all that remains of it is the tiny seed of the word that has been implanted in their hearts and that now starts to grow in the form of expectation, curiosity and hope: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” They want to see the word that has taken place. Not the angel’s word with its heavenly radiance: that has already become unimportant. They want to see the content of the angel’s word, that is, the Child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. They want to see the word that has “happened,” the word that has taken place, the word that is not only something uttered but something done, something that can not only be heard but also seen.

Thus the word that the shepherds want to see is not the angel’s word. This was only the proclamation (the kerygma, as people say nowadays); it was only a pointer. The angels, with their heavenly authority, disappear: they belong to the heavenly realm; all that remains is a pointer to a word that has been done. By God, of course. Just as it is God who made it known to them through the angels. …

All who deny themselves in order to carry out love’s commission are on the right path.

Miracles happen along this path. Apparently insignificant miracles, noticed by hardly anyone. The very finding of a Child wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger—is this not a miracle in itself? Then there is the miracle when a particular mission, hidden in a person’s heart, really reaches its goal, bringing God’s peace and joy where there were nothing but despair and resignation; when someone succeeds in striking a tiny light in the midst of an overpowering darkness. When joy irradiates a heart that no longer dared to believe in it. Now and again we ourselves are assured that the angel’s word we are trying to obey will bring us to the place where God’s Word and Son is already made man. We are assured that, in spite of all the noise and nonsense, today, December 25, is Christmas just as truly as two millennia ago. Once and for all God has started out on his journey toward us, and nothing, till the world’s end, will stop him from coming to us and abiding in us.

Christmas visit to Lewes

When I was on the road with my brother last week, our first stop was in Lewes, Delaware to visit Ben Novak and his family. It was a good visit, and we had dinner at Grotto Pizza in Rehoboth Beach, about 20 minutes south of Lewes.

On Saturday, the following morning, we got up and got ready to hit the road to Central Pennsylvania, an approximately five hour drive. But before we did that we went out onto a fishing pier that looks out to the west at the Lewes ferry terminal, and to the east to Cape Henlopen State Park. It was perfect, late December light jacket weather.

If it hadn’t been for the approaching ferry, it would have almost been tough to tell where the horizon and the sky met.

State College and holy families

We’re in State College today, heading back to Philadelphia shortly for New Years with family. I’m here with one of my brothers for a college visit, and it looks like he’ll be a Penn Stater, Class or 2024. We walked the campus last night, which was particularly special because it was as deserted as I’ve ever seen it due to Christmas break. It was like we had the place to ourselves for a private tour and the sort of conversation that flows in moments like that. It’s been a good trip and we’ve had good time to be together. I’m excited for him as he looks ahead to this.

After waking up at the Hyatt Place downtown this morning, we checked out and headed to Our Lady of Victory for Mass. It’s still Christmas, and today is the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I’m pasting some of Bishop Robert Barron’s Gospel reflection below:

The family is, above all, the forum in which both parents and children are able to discern their missions. It is perfectly good, of course, if deep bonds and rich emotions are cultivated within the family, but those relationships and passions must cede to something that is more spiritually focused.

A biblical prioritization of values helps us to see what typically goes wrong with families. When something other than mission is dominant—a son’s athletic achievement, a daughter’s success at university, etc.—family relationships actually become strained. The paradox is this: precisely in the measure that everyone in the family focuses on God’s call for one another, the family becomes more loving and peaceful.

John Paul II admirably summed up what I’ve been driving at when he spoke of the family as an ecclesiola (a little church). At its best, he implies, the family is a place where God is worshiped and where the discernment of God’s mission is of paramount importance.

‘She glares at us in horror’

Michael Frost writes on Léon Cogniet’s 1824 Scène du massacre des Innocents:

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If it’s not the greatest of Christmas paintings, it must be one of the most haunting and affecting. A terrified mother cowers in a darkened corner, muffling the cries of her small infant, while around her the chaos and horror of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem rages.

Most painters of this scene turn it into a huge biblical spectacle, making it a revolting tableaux of death and mayhem. But Cogniet focuses our attention on one petrified woman, a mother who knows she is about to lose her child. She envelopes her doomed child, her bare feet revealing how vulnerable they are. There’s no way to run. She is cornered.

Wisely, Cogniet doesn’t show us the carnage. It is hinted at in the rushing figures in the background. Another mother is seen carrying her own children down the stairs to the left, running for their lives. But Cogniet shows a level of artistic restraint not seen in many depictions of this story. He forces everything to the background in order to draw our attention to the woman’s terrified face.

That face!

Staring at… us!

It’s as if we are one of Herod’s agents of death, and we have found her. She glares at us in horror. …

This Christmas, by all means remember the angels and the shepherds and the magi and the little boy-child Jesus in his manger. But also remember this mother and her child on the streets of Bethlehem. And remember that the coming of the Christ was to set in train a revolution of love and justice that would eventually sweep away all tyrants and free all victims and end all wars.

Any one of us could be one of those agents of Herod. That’s what I think about when I look into her face. I could be her child’s killer. If we’re capable of heroic virtue, we’re as capable of terrible evil. This is Jordan Peterson’s point when he cautions against being too self-assured that you would be on the side of the Allies and not the Axis powers.

Christ’s appearance in the world was consequential from the earliest moments. And we see in Herod (and in ourselves) how the human heart reacts to the prospect of the King of Peace, and a new order that transcends our vanities. We have the capacity to act violently, brutally.

‘We aren’t the singular-autonomous individuals we think of ourselves as being’

Charlie Camosy interviews Kristin Marguerite Collier, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School, on the relationship between a mother and a child prior to the child’s birth. Kristin Collier writes:

As many of your readers may know, the placenta is the organ through which the mother and prenatal child interface. The placenta is an organ that is attached to the inside of the uterus and connects to the prenatal child through the child’s umbilical cord.

What is not as well known about this organ is that the placenta is the only organ in human biology that is made by two persons, together, in cooperation. The placenta is ‘built’ from tissue that is part from mom, and part from the growing baby. Because of this, the placenta is referred to as a ‘feto-maternal’ organ. It is the only organ made by two people, in cooperation with providence. It is the first time mom and her baby come together, albeit at the cellular level, to do something in cooperation.

Whenever I think of this, I picture the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo depicts God and Man reaching out for one another, hands about to touch and perhaps entwine. In the creation of the placenta, cells from the trophoblast, which are from the embryo, ‘reach down’ towards the mother’s uterine wall while at the same time, the spiral arteries from the mother’s uterus are ‘reaching’ up towards the embryo. This process leads to the creation of the placenta.

The placenta is the only purposely transient organ in humans and unlike the rest of our organs, acts as many organs in one. The placenta functions to eliminate waste, like the kidneys would do, facilitates transfer of oxygen and carbon dioxide, like the lungs would do, and provides nutrients, like a GI tract would do. It even has endocrine and immune function. What used to be discarded as just the ‘afterbirth’ is now regarded as a magnificently complex shared organ that supports the formation of the prenatal child.

The placenta is such an important organ that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has established, under its “Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development” arm, the “Human Placenta Project” (HPP). The website says “The placenta is arguably one of the most important organs in the body. It influences not just the health of a woman and her fetus during pregnancy, but also the lifelong health of both mother and child.” The aim of the HPP is to better understand, through research, the amazing placenta with the ultimate goal of improving the health of children and mothers. The research done by the HPP continues to demonstrate that a child’s prenatal and postnatal health is inextricably linked to the health of the placenta.

In addition to the placenta, mother and prenatal child interact at a cellular level in something known as ‘fetomaternal microchimerism’. In Greek Mythology, the chimera is a fire breathing monster comprised of three species in one – a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail. In science, “microchimerism” is the presence of a small population of genetically distinct and separately derived cells within an individual. During pregnancy, small numbers of cells traffic across the placenta. Some of the prenatal child’s cells cross into the mother, and some cells from the mother cross into the prenatal child. The cells from the prenatal child are pluripotent and integrate into tissues in her mother’s body and start functioning like the cells around them. This integration is known as ‘feto-maternal microchimerism’.

The presence of these cells is amazing for several reasons. One is that these cells have been found in various maternal organs and tissues such as the brain, the breast, the thyroid and the skin. These are all organs which in some way are important for the health of both the baby and her mother in relationship. The post-partum phase is when there is need, for example, for lactation. The fetomaternal microchimeric cells have been shown to be important in signaling lactation. These cells have been found in the skin, for example, in Cesarean section incisions where they are helping to produce collagen. Baby is helping mom heal after delivery by the presence of her cells! It would be one thing for these cells to come into the mother and be inert, but is a whole other thing entirely that these cells are active and aid mom for example in helping to produce milk for her baby and helping her heal. These cells may even affect how soon the mother can get pregnant again and therefore can affect spacing of future siblings.

Usually, foreign or ‘other’ cells are detected by the host immune system and are destroyed. The fact that these fetal cells ‘survive’ and then are allowed to integrate into maternal tissue speaks to a ‘cooperation’ between the mother and her child at the level of the cell that parallels that seen in the development of the placenta, suggesting that the physical connection between mom and baby is even deeper and more beautiful than previously thought. Research in fetomaternal microchimerism suggests that the presence of these cells may favorably affect the future risk of malignancy. The presence of these cells in the maternal breast may help protect mom from breast cancer years after the baby’s birth.

To think that a physical presence of the baby in her mother is helping protect her from cancer at the level of the cell, speaks to a radical mutuality at the cellular level that we are just beginning to understand. Some of the effects of fetomaternal microchimerism, however, may be detrimental in some cases. This research is still underway. The big takeaway is that the science of microchimerism supports the fact that some human beings carry remnants of other humans in their bodies. Thus, we aren’t the singular-autonomous individuals we think of ourselves as being.

And Michael Pakaluk writes along the same lines, reflecting on the theological implications of our contemporary understanding of pregnancy:

“Mothers around the world say they feel like their children are still a part of them long after they’ve given birth,” said a recent Smithsonian Magazine article, “As it turns out, that is literally true. During pregnancy, cells from the fetus cross the placenta and enter the mother’s body, where they can become part of her tissues.”

It works the other way, too.  Cells from the mother also cross the barrier.  But these cells are not “pluripotent”; their life spans and possible influences are short-lived.

Evolutionary biologists are fascinated by the exchange, because they view it as a symbiosis that contributes to the “fitness” of both mother and child.  Preliminary evidence suggests that fetal cells may stimulate milk production, help wounds to heal, and strengthen the mother’s immune system. …

But let’s think of Mary’s pregnancy in this way.  Jesus was “perfect God and perfect man,” like us in all ways except sin. Therefore, let us suppose that cells from the unborn Jesus migrated into Mary’s blood and lodged in various organs, where they took on the functions of those organs, and remained until Mary was assumed into Heaven. They were not Mary’s cells, but the cells of the Lord, alive within Mary’s body and playing the same function as Mary’s cells. …

A Church that advances the world

G.K Chesterton writes on the question of whether Catholics can ever be properly understood to be behind the times, and specifically whether the Church should “move with the times:”

Chesterton, in response to a newspaper suggestion that the Church ought to “move with the times”:

The Cities of the Plain might have remarked that the heavens above them did not altogether fit in with their own high civilisation and social habits. They would be right. Oddly enough, however, when symmetry was eventually restored, it was not the heavens that had been obliged to adapt themselves….

The Church cannot move with the times; simply because the times are not moving. The Church can only stick in the mud with the times, and rot and stink with the times. In the economic and social world, as such, there is no activity except that sort of automatic activiity that is called decay; the withering of the high flowers of freedom and their decomposition into the aboriginal soil of slavery. In that way the world stands much at the same stage as it did at the beginning of the Dark Ages. And the Church has the same task as it had at the beginning of the Dark Ages; to save all the light and liberty that can be saved, to resist the downward drag of the world, and to wait for better days. So much a real Church would certainly do; but a real Church might be able to do more. It might make its Dark Ages something more than a seed-time; it might make them the very reverse of dark. It might present its more human ideal in such abrupt and attractive a contrast to the inhuman trend of the time, as to inspire men suddenly for one of the moral revolutions of history; so that men now living shall not taste of death until they have seen justice return.

We do not want, as the newspapers say, a Church that will move with the world. We want a Church that will move the world. We want one that will move it away from many of the things towards which it is now moving; for instance, the Servile State. It is by that test that history will really judge of any Church, whether it is the real Church or no.

The spirit of any age is by nature ephemeral; fleeting. To proclaim something or someone as true is to proclaim a thing that doesn’t change.

Christmas, in transit

Merry Christmas! I’m in the cafe car on Amtrak, heading to Philadelphia. I think this is the first time I’ve traveled alone on Christmas Day, and am eager to be with family tonight.

I stayed in Washington for Christmas Eve because I wanted to be there for Midnight Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, was the celebrant. And EWTN broadcast it:

It turned out to be a spiritually rich Christmas Eve, for which I’m really grateful. And as a bonus, I ran into a friend and his fiancé from my University of Mary bioethics program. We sat together and caught up afterwards.

Christmas reminds us not only that Christ came into the world, but also that we’re not alone.

Mary sang in this world below

I’m at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception this evening for confession before Christmas, and will stay here for Midnight Mass tonight.

Billy Ryan shares J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Christmas prayer to the Virgin Mary,” apparently an only recently rediscovered 1936 poem called “Noel” that appeared in an Oxfordshire magazine:

Grim was the world and grey last night:
The moon and stars were fled,
The hall was dark without song or light,
The fires were fallen dead.
The wind in the trees was like to the sea,
And over the mountains’ teeth
It whistled bitter-cold and free,
As a sword leapt from its sheath.

The lord of snows upreared his head;
His mantle long and pale
Upon the bitter blast was spread
And hung o’er hill and dale.
The world was blind, the boughs were bent,
All ways and paths were wild:
Then the veil of cloud apart was rent,
And here was born a Child.

The ancient dome of heaven sheer
Was pricked with distant light;
A star came shining white and clear
Alone above the night.
In the dale of dark in that hour of birth
One voice on a sudden sang:
Then all the bells in Heaven and Earth
Together at midnight rang.

Mary sang in this world below:
They heard her song arise
O’er mist and over mountain snow
To the walls of Paradise,
And the tongue of many bells was stirred
in Heaven’s towers to ring
When the voice of mortal maid was heard,
That was mother of Heaven’s King.

Glad is the world and fair this night
With stars about its head,
And the hall is filled with laughter and light,
And fires are burning red.
The bells of Paradise now ring
With bells of Christendom,
And Gloria, Gloria we will sing
That God on earth is come.

Brideshead Revisited

I read Brideshead Revisited over the weekend. What Willa Cather accomplished in painting a portrait of a particular time in Shadows on the Rock or My Ántonia, Evelyn Waugh accomplished with Brideshead Revisited. I’m glad to have finally read this book.

In December 1945, John K. Hutchens reviewed Brideshead Revisited and called it Waugh’s finest achievement:

“Brideshead Revisited” has the depth and weight that are found in a writer working in his prime, in the full powers of an eager, good mind and a skilled hand, retaining the best of what he has already learned. It tells an absorbing story in imaginative terms. By indirection it summarizes and comments upon a time and a society. It has an almost romantic sense of wonder, together with the provocative, personal point of view of a writer who sees life realistically. It is, in short, a large, inclusive novel with which the 1946 season begins, a novel more fully realized than any of the year now ending, whatever their other virtues. …

Unless “Brideshead Revisited” finds you a very new member of the Waugh public, you realized with his first novel (“Decline and Fall,” 1928) that his equipment as a social satirist was just about perfect. In the first place, he obviously knew what he was talking about: this was reporting at first- hand by one who had been in that world if not of it. He wrote with a sharp thrust which smote a victim or merely pinked him, as circumstances dictated. His style was clean and fast. From one sentence to another you read with a virtually sensuous delight in his gift for the exact word, his remarkable use of a detail to summarize a place or a person, his wonderful sense of the ridiculous. …

In the beginning it is gay enough–an affectionately ironic picture of Oxford in 1923, the sunflower estheticism, plovers eggs and getting drunk at luncheon, the lively, small banter, the happy irresponsibility, “Antic Hay.” It is there that Ryder meets Lord Sebastian Flyte and forms a romantic friendship with him; Sebastian, the brilliant, charming “half-heathen” second son of an old Catholic family that is verging on dissolution which, Mr. Waugh seems to suggest, parallels England’s change from the old order to the new. Then, the story’s arrival at Brideshead and its baroque castle, the tone changes to a somber hue as the themes develop: the love story of Ryder and Sebastian’s sister Julia, of which Ryder’s and Sebastian’s friendship had been a spiritual forerunner; the Church giving haven to the soul-torn, drunken Sebastian and reclaiming Julia and even the Byronic father who comes home at last from Italy to die. …

There will be, quite certainly, no little discussion and even controversy about the problem he poses, or rather the conclusion he offers. Mr. Waugh, a Catholic, is also, politically, a Tory. As a writer, as a story-teller and an artist, he insists on nothing. Of Catholicism as a factor in the lives of the Marchmains he writes so objectively, seeing it through the eyes of the non-Catholic narrator, that it could actually be construed as the slightly sardonic report of an unbeliever confronted with (and baffled by) “an entirely different outlook on life.” What he is saying in effect is that faith is a saving answer to anyone who has it or had had it; which could scarcely be called propaganda, though he will surely be charged with propaganda. It will be said, too, that his political conservatism is patent in his reluctant acceptance of social change, and this will be true: the end of a Brideshead is to him a matter for regret and misgiving, for he believes in “order” and the continuity of tradition. Above all, he believes in responsibility, the absence of which in his own class he has castigated so fiercely.

Sunday Christmas scenes

It’s been a beautiful weekend in Washington. I headed to Alexandra this afternoon for a Christmas/baby birthday party, and then saw a friend off at the airport before catching the Metro to Rosslyn and walking home across the Key Bridge.

Here are two photos of a great Georgetown home, and the view this evening from the Washington Reagan Airport concourse.