‘Santa’ means saint, and saints are real

I was raised believing in Santa Claus. It absolutely infused a spirit of wonder into the Christmas season. But in growing up, I’ve come to think it was the wrong sort of wonder—a rootless sort of wonder that was one part magic and one part consumerism, both of which obscure Christ as the key mover of Christmastime.

Fr. Thomas Petri and Dr. Chad Pecknold recently had an exchange on Twitter that made me think of this:

We put our shoes at Nativity, my grammar school, in the corridors for Saint Nicholas’s Feast Day. Dr. Pecknold responded as a part of that thread with what I think is a close to perfect approach toward raising children to experience the wonder of Advent and Christmastime, without the lie at the heart of our modern experience of it:

God’s advent

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, and we hear from Matthew: “Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

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It’s raining this morning in Washington, but a light rain that doesn’t leave you overly chilly. After Mass at Epiphany, I continued reading Romano Guardini, “The Lord,” and specifically his chapter on judgment:

Men have always known that something was wrong with human existence; that everywhere stupidity, injustice, deception and violence were at work. Consequently there was always the feeling that someday things must be set right and fulfilled. Some expected this clarification to come from human history itself: humanity by its own powers would fight its way through to a kind of divine existence. Let us allow this hope to die a natural death; it is flagrantly contrary not only to Revelation and Christian thinking, but also to the conclusions that must be drawn from a single honest glance at reality. We maintain our conviction that clarity can come only from God, after earthly life is over. But how is such a judgment to be imagined?

One might say: Throughout existence we find vain appearances and downright deception. A man is seldom rated by his fellow-men for what he really is. Often people of great value are poor, the honorable are unknown, and the questionable or utterly useless are wealthy and esteemed. Seldom does a person’s appearance reveal his true nature. Even towards oneself there is much deceit. The self-appraising eye looks away at sight of the truth; the will hides its true intentions from itself and pretends to much that is non-existent. Thus judgment might well consist of the falling of the masks; the transparent appearance of all things as they really are. . . . We might also say: The inner reality of an individual should harmonize with the outer. The man who is pure should also be healthy; the good beautiful, the magnanimous strong and powerful of frame. Actually, it is quite different. Such unity is so rare, that an encounter with it seems like a fairytale. And it will never be otherwise. Neither physical-education nor spiritual formation will be able to change this radically, for the root of the disturbance goes deeper than human will. The cracks that run through personality will always be there—the stronger the personality, the deeper the cracks. Judgment could mean that disposition and being become one, that every human becomes in reality what he is by intention.

Or this thought: How rarely are life’s promises kept, tasks completed, do human relations bear their fruit, does potential greatness become actuality. Again and again things break off and remain fragmentary. Life seldom receives the full, intelligent and loving approbation it desires. Even love is insufficient and illusory. Hence judgment could mean fulfillment; that every being might say: Everything in me that could be, has been perfected, has received its “yes” and its “no.”

These suggestions, like many others, have their grain of truth—also of Christian truth. Many passages in Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, support them. Still, what Christ says is different. In order that “judgments” such as these take place, things have only to appear before God’s clarity. But what Jesus was referring to in the last days of his earthly existence was something else.

The judgment he means will not come through the falling away of time’s constraint and the placing of all things in God’s clarifying light, but through God’s advent. Judgment is not the eternal consequences of divine government, but God’s specific historical act—the last. After it, we are told, comes eternity. There is no action in eternity, only purest being and eternal fulfillment. And the God who is to come thus is Jesus Christ, he who is addressing us. …

When will Judgment come? No one knows, says the Lord—not even the Son. This knowledge is reserved to the Father and his counsel. It is not necessary to pull this word to pieces. It is part of paternal sovereignty “to know the times or dates which the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). Judgment comes from the freedom of the Father, the Inaccessible One.

One thing we are told: it will come suddenly. Like the thief in the night, the master from his journey, the bridegroom from the wedding. This “suddenly” is the same kind of adverb as the “soon” of the Apocalypse and Paul’s letters. It does not mean a brief span of time rather than a long one—not ten years instead of a thousand. This is how it was interpreted in the beginning, so that people thought Christ’s return would take place in the next few years. In reality, any time is “soon” because all time is short, i.e., transitory. A thousand years before God are as a day, and all time as nothing, for he is eternity, but time passes. Whenever the end comes, it will be “soon.” And people will say: “Now? Why now? We have scarcely begun to live! We haven’t done any of the things that must be done, if everything is not to be lost! We have neglected the essential.” Always it will be: “We have neglected the essential!” This is how Christ’s “suddenly” is meant. …

God’s gaze is constantly upon earth, and his coming is a constant threat.

In the kingdom of anxiety

Terence Sweeney writes on Alan Jacobs’s “The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis”:

History can be told as the story of what happened, but it can also be narrated as the story of what could have been but was not. We look to history, in part, to see not only what is now but what may be. This is in part the motivating force behind various genealogies whether they be Michel Foucault’s or Alasdair MacIntyre’s. If the past is not what we have been told, perhaps the future may be different from what we have been told it will be. …

Auden was skeptical of a “program of Christian social renewal” in part because of his concern that it was “a massive misunderstanding of the claims of Christianity” to treat it as “a means to an end, that end being social cohesion” (81). This is the threat of conservatism for Christianity: it makes Christianity a force for social good—the city of God makes a better terrestrial city. But as Auden knew: “This is to re-enact the Constantinian error, which was to ‘profess and practice a religion of success’” (81). The crass version of this is the prosperity gospel in which Christianity will help us win so much we get bored of winning. In the richer traditions of Christianity, the question remains: what is the victory we seek?

For Auden, this victory could not be a social, cultural, or political. He challenges us to ask if we “believe that the contemplative life is the highest and most exhausting of vocations, that the church is saved by the saints?” (55). These values probably do not benefit society, but the contemplative and the saint seek a kingdom that is not of this world. Yet, for Auden in For the Time Being, they must remain at work here for we have “the time being to redeem / From insignificance.” Our victories this side of Eden are ironic ones redeemed only by the hope of Someone Else’s victory. We can only pursue this true victory by working for small victories “In the Kingdom of Anxiety” for it is only here that we can “Love Him in the World of the Flesh.” If you hope in the most ironic victory—that of the Cross—you may come to “the great city that has expected your return for years.” All we can do until then is win some and, more often, lose some, work against technocracy and nationalism, and actively wait as a service to God and to all. Ultimately, it is not social reform that matters; what matters is becoming saints. …

Perhaps it is Auden’s sense of irony and hope that leads Jacobs to close with the message of yet another writer: the French philosopher Jacques Ellul. Jacobs sees Ellul as having been “more realistic” in choosing “the simple hope for miraculous deliverance” (206). For a Christian, this is the truest realism, for our only hope is for the continuing miraculous deliverance of the Cross, Resurrection, and Return. Still, this reader was left grasping at the end. Is our only hope, as the diminished thing, a miracle? Jacobs leaves us with the advice that we must learn from these writers and that we must be aware of the signs of the times. But what can either teach us? As the diminished thing, how are we to arrest this diminishment and maybe even grow? These writers did not arrest the time. If, as I posited in the beginning of this essay, a genealogical approach gives us a sense of what was not, but also what could be, then Jacobs seems to provide us with little in the direction forward. The past that failed seems now merely a prologue towards continued diminishing.

Perhaps then, this diminishment provides us the spiritual lessons we need. Genealogical accounts are meant to remind us of contingency and so possibility for what may be. But what Auden teaches is that social reform is not our ultimate goal even if our social reform is a new Christendom. And now that comprehensive Christian social reform is wellnigh impossible, we must learn to dwell as diminished. Jacob’s lesson is that our calling is to be diminished in the year of the Lord 2019. What Eliot, Weil, Maritain, Lewis, and Auden provide ultimately is not the wisdom of a new Christendom, but the wisdom of a diminished Christianity. The possibility they open up is the possibility of a wiser Christianity, which has been shorn of its political power but also liberated for its work in the time being as we await another but very different coming of Christ.

What is a Christian’s telos or purpose? By God’s grace, becoming a saint. Christianity’s telos is not social cohesion per se, but of achieving a greater soul and greater soulfulness.

This is why the “the simple hope for miraculous deliverance” is Christian realism at its best, because it recognizes that its hope in “miraculous deliverance” corresponds with our little-thought-upon “miraculous appearance” at conception and emergence into this life. Just as our coming into life was an unanticipated gift, our leaving it too can be looked upon as a “going home” to the God who brought us into being.

Christ the King

A homily reflection from Saint Josemaria Escriva on the feast of Christ the King:

Christ’s lordship over the universe is commemorated in various ways in feasts of the liturgical year, including the Epiphany, Easter, and the Ascension. With the Solemnity of Christ the King, instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in the context of the growing secularization of the world, the Church wishes to highlight even more clearly Christ’s sovereignty over all creation, including human history.

Jesus’ reign, as the liturgy of the Mass underlines, is a regnum veritatis et vitae; regnum sanctitatis et gratiae; regnum iustitiae, amoris et pacis. Truth, life, holiness, grace, justice, love and peace: these are the values that the human heart most longs for, and we Christians can contribute to bringing them about. We can do so especially through works of mercy done for the most needy, as the gospel for this feast in Year A tells us. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome.

Nevertheless, Jesus himself warned us, my kingdom is not of this world. His sovereignty will be seen in its fullness at his second coming in glory, when there will be new heavens and a new earth, and all creatures, free from the slavery of sin, will serve and never cease to praise him. Now is the time of expectation, of working for his kingdom, confident that the final victory will be his.

Jesus is the center of history: not only the history of mankind as a whole, but also of each individual person. Even when it seems that everything is lost, it is always possible to appeal to our Lord like the good thief, as the gospel for Year C tells us. What peace comes from the fact that, in spite of our past, with sincere repentance we can always enter the Kingdom of God. “Today we can think about our own story, the path of our life. Each one of us has our history; we each have our mistakes, our sins, our happy moments and our sad ones. On a day such as this we do well to think about our own history, and to look at Jesus, and to say often, but from the heart, in silence, each one of us: ‘Remember me, Lord, now that you are in your kingdom. Jesus, remember me, because I want to be good, I want to be good, but I don’t have the strength, I just can’t. I’m a sinner, a sinner. But remember me, Jesus. You can remember me because you’re in the center, you’re right there, in your kingdom’.”

When instituting the Feast of Christ the King, Pius XI wrote: “While nations insult the beloved name of our Redeemer by suppressing all mention of it in their conferences and parliaments, we must all the more loudly proclaim His kingly dignity and power, (and) all the more universally affirm His rights.”

“Jesus is the center of history: not only the history of mankind as a whole, but also of each individual person.”

‘The truth has us’, not visa versa

In August I excerpted something from Jordan B. Peterson, where he said the following in a lecture last year about “ideas having people:”

One of the things Carl Jung also said about ideas, which just staggered me when I started to understand it, is “People don’t have ideas. Ideas have people.”

You can think about that for about ten years. That’s a terrifying idea. And you when people are possessed by an ideology—all the people have the same idea! And you think, “Well, if all the people have the same idea, what makes you think that they have the idea? It’s exactly the other way around: the idea has them. And unless you understand that to some degree, you can’t understand the sorts of things that happened in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union or Maoist China, where whole populations were gripped by an idea and acted it out. They were in the thrall of that idea. So it’s really important that you have your own story. If you’re without a story, some other damn story is going to pick you up. That’s for sure.

And one of the things Jung said, for example, is you should figure out what your story is, because it might be a tragedy. And if it is, you might want to rethink it.

And today I saw someone share the following from Pope Benedict XVI, which says much the same thing, but in a teleological sense:

Indeed, we cannot say “I have the truth,” but [rather] the truth has us, it touches us. And we try to let ourselves be guided by this touch. … One can work with the truth, because the truth is person. One can let truth in, try to provide the truth with worth. That seemed to me finally to be the very definition of the profession of a theologian; that he, when he has been touched by this truth, when truth has caught sight of him, is now ready to let it take him into service, to work on it and for it.

What is our telos, our ultimate end? To let Jesus Christ, the truth, have us.

‘The more their individuality becomes pronounced’

Fr. George Rutler writes on the source of creativity:

It is surprising that Michelangelo carved what he claimed was an ancient Roman sculpture of “Eros Sleeping,” which he aged by rubbing it with acidic soil. He did this when he was 21, possibly as a joke, around the same time that he made the Pietà, so he certainly was not lacking talent.

A friend asked me why forgeries are less valuable than originals, if it is hard to tell them apart. The question can be annoying, but it has a certain logic. The answer, of course, is that the value of a work consists not only in its artistry, but in its originality. In that sense, what we call creativity is a gift of God who alone is the Source of all things, including life itself. Only God is the primary Creator, and humans are his pro-creators. We cannot produce something out of nothing.

The more individuals allow God, by a right exercise of the free will, to shape their souls according to his likeness, the more their individuality becomes pronounced. This is the work of “sanctifying grace” by which God “perfects human nature,” as Saint Thomas described the process (Summa Theol. 1, 1, 8 ad. 2). The Anti-Christ cannot create, and so he tries to make human forgeries, by sin. The more people block the will of God, the more they become uninspired copies of each other. This is why sinners are predictable, while saints are always surprising. No two saints are alike.

A figure of speech, synecdoche, uses one word, as part of something, to represent the whole. Forgers are synecdoches of all sinners who pretend to be creative instead of letting God work through them. The month of November focuses on the saints, who are not cleverly crafted imitations, but who are authentic images of God who “alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen nor can see” (1 Timothy 6:16).

“The more individuals allow God, by a right exercise of the free will, to shape their souls according to his likeness, the more their individuality becomes pronounced.”

All Souls and their deliverance

I joined the Borromeo Brothers this morning at St. Charles in Clarendon, where we considered John 4:4-30, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in her alienation and Christ’s communio, and the acting of grace upon her after their encounter. And on the walk home I reflected on All Souls Day while listening to Romano Guardini’s “The Lord,” particularly thinking on the concreteness of death to our experience, but the impermanence of death in God’s experience. Today we remember the dead, but more importantly we pray for their deliverance into beatitude.

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William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s All Soul’s Day, and an excerpt from the Dies irae:

Worthless are my prayers and sighing,
Yet, good Lord, in grace complying,
Rescue me from fires undying.

With Thy sheep a place provide me,
From the goats afar divide me,
To Thy right hand do Thou guide me.

When the wicked are confounded,
Doomed to flames of woe unbounded,
Call me with Your saints surrounded.

Low I kneel, with heart’s submission,
See, like ashes, my contrition,
Help me in my last condition.

Ah! that day of tears and mourning,
From the dust of earth returning
Man for judgement must prepare him,
Spare, O God, in mercy spare him.

Lord, all-pitying, Jesus blest,
Grant them Thine eternal rest. Amen.

All Saints

I woke up this morning to the chill air of November 1st, and walked down Dumbarton Street to Epiphany for All Saints Day Mass. Opus Dei’s “Like a Great Symphony” explains All Saints Day:

Saints attract in a wonderful way! The life of a person who has struggled towards identification with Christ is a great “apologia” for the faith. Their powerful light shines in the midst of the world. If sometimes it seems that human history is governed by the kingdom of darkness, possibly this is due to these lights shining less brightly or in fewer number. “These world crises are crises of saints,” as Saint Josemaria said. The contrast between their light-filled existence and the darkness around them may be great. In fact, many of them suffered misunderstandings or hidden or even open persecution, as happened to the Word Incarnate: the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light. Despite all this, experience shows the great appeal the saints have. In many sectors of society, people admire the witness of a strong and completely coherent Christian life. The lives of the saints show us how being close to our Lord fills the heart with peace and joy, and how we can spread serenity, hope and optimism around us, while being open to the needs of others, especially the least fortunate. …

As we read in the book of Revelation, the saints form a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues. This multitude includes the saints of the Old Testament, such as the just man Abel and the faithful patriarch Abraham; those of the New Testament; the many martyrs of the early times of Christianity, and the blessed and saints of all time. This is the great family of God’s children, formed by those who model their life under the impulse of the eternal sculptor, the Holy Spirit. …

A contemporary French writer says that the saints are like “the colors of the spectrum in relation to the light.” Each one expresses with his or her own tones and radiance the light of divine holiness. It is as though the radiance of Christ’s Resurrection, in passing through the prism of mankind, opens up a spectrum of colors as varied as it is fascinating. “When the Church keeps the memorials of martyrs and other saints during the annual cycle, she proclaims the Paschal mystery in those ‘who have suffered and have been glorified with Christ. She proposes them to the faithful as examples who draw all men to the Father through Christ, and through their merits she begs for God’s favors’ (Vatican II, Const. Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 104).” …

The content of the collects is quite rich and varied. Thus, for example, on the memorial of Saint John Fisher and Saint Thomas More (June 22), we ask to confirm with the witness of our life the faith we profess (what Saint Josemaria would call unity of life); or we ask to have apostolic zeal like that of Saint Francis Xavier (December 3); or to live the mystery of Christ especially by contemplating his Passion as did Saint Catherine of Siena (April 29); or to have our heart enkindled with the fire of the Holy Spirit on the day of Saint Philip Neri (May 26). On other occasions we ask for gifts and graces for the Church: the fruitfulness of the apostolate on the memorial of Saint Charles Luwanga and his martyr companions (June 3); to have shepherds to the measure of Christ’s heart, on the feast of Saint Ambrose (December 7); or to trustingly open our hearts to Christ’s grace, as Saint John Paul II asked of us (October 22). On the memorial of Saint Juan Diego (December 9) we contemplate our Lady’s love for her people, and on that of Saint Agatha (February 5) we are reminded of how pleased God is with the virtue of purity.

These examples, which could be multiplied many times, show us that the prayers we offer on the feasts of the saints are a very rich resource for our personal prayer on that day. They can help us to address our Lord spontaneously with specific phrases during our hours of work and rest that day. Precious gems of unique beauty, some of these prayers have been prayed for many centuries, like jewels inserted into the liturgical celebrations of Christian Tradition. As we pray them, we are praying as so many generations of Christians have prayed. The memorials and feasts of the saints celebrated throughout the year offer us the opportunity to get to know a bit better these powerful intercessors before the Blessed Trinity, and to “make new friends” in heaven. …

The saints, “being touched by God’s word have, as it were, released an explosion of light, through which God’s radiance shines upon our world and shows us the path. The saints are stars of God, by whom we let ourselves be led to him for whom our whole being longs.” Just as the star from the East guided the Magi to their personal encounter with Christ, so the saints help us like the North Star in the night sky, to reach the land to which we aspire. …

Celebrating the feastdays of the saints forcefully reminds us of the universal call to holiness. Helped by God’s grace, all men and women can correspond fully to the loving invitation to participate in divine Life, each in our specific circumstances. As Pope Francis said: “Often we are tempted to think that sainthood is reserved only to those who have the opportunity to break away from daily affairs in order to dedicate themselves exclusively to prayer. But it is not so! Some think that sanctity is to close your eyes and to look like a holy icon. No! This is not sanctity! Sanctity is something greater, deeper, which God gives us. Indeed, it is precisely in living with love and offering one’s own Christian witness in everyday affairs that we are called to become saints.”

Last night I took part in the Vigil of All Saints at the Dominican House of Studies across from Catholic University. It was a powerful way to remember the saints and to reflect on the call to holiness:

Held on All Hallows Eve, the Vigil will have as its theme “Confessions of Our Hope.” The evening will provide the opportunity to ponder the theme of Christian hope through readings from the saints, the Office of Compline (sung Night Prayer), a procession to the House Reliquary, and a chanted Litany of the Saints. Confessions will be available throughout the evening and a reception will follow.

Afterwards we had the chance to venerate a first class relic of Saint Augustine, which was incredible. I’ve been reading and thinking about him throughout most of this past year.

Nature of a life worth living

“It’s a good thing, a vital thing, to consider what we’re willing to die for. What do we love more than life? To even ask that question is an act of rebellion against a loveless age,” said Archbishop Chaput in remarks at Notre Dame earlier this month. “And to answer it with conviction is to become a revolutionary; the kind of loving revolutionary who will survive and resist—and someday redeem a late modern West that can no longer imagine anything worth dying for, and thus, in the long run, anything worth living for.” Archbishop Chaput spoke to Notre Dame’s Constitutional Studies program:

Family, friends, honor, and integrity: These are natural loves. Throughout history, men and women have been willing to die for these loves. As Christians, though, we claim to be animated—first and foremost—by a supernatural love: love for God as our Creator and Jesus Christ as his Son. St. Polycarp, for all his caution and prudence, eventually did choose martyrdom rather than repudiate his Christian faith.

The issue at hand is this: Are we really willing to do the same; and if so, how must we live in a way that proves it? These aren’t theoretical questions. They’re brutally real. Right now Christians in many countries around the world are facing the choice of Jesus Christ or death. Last year the German novelist Martin Mosebach published an account of the 21 migrant workers in Libya who were kidnapped by Muslim extremists and executed for their faith. Twenty were Coptic Christians from Egypt. One was another African who refused to separate himself from his brothers in the faith.

The murder of those 21 Christians is captured on video. It’s hard to watch—not just because the act is barbaric, but also because, in our hearts, we fear that, faced with the same choice, we might betray our faith in order to save our lives. Put frankly, the martyrs, both ancient and modern, frighten us as much as they inspire us. And maybe this reaction makes perfect sense. Maybe it’s a version of the biblical principle that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Fear of martyrdom is the beginning of an honest appraisal of our spiritual mediocrity.

So I think we should consider this fear for a moment, rather than repressing it, as we so often do.

The Christian men beheaded on the Libyan beach are not really so remote from us. The worry we naturally feel, that we might fail a similar test, is a concrete and urgent version of the anxiety we rightly feel when we think about coming before the judgment of God. If we’re honest about ourselves, we know that we’re likely to fail that test too. After all, we’re barely able to live up to the basic demands of the Ten Commandments. Many of us have trouble following even the minimal norms of a Catholic life: regular confession and Mass attendance, kindness to others, and a few minutes of daily prayer. If those very simple things are struggles, how can we possibly have the spiritual strength to face martyrdom? Or the judgment of a just God?

The Catholic faith we hold doesn’t deny our failures. It highlights them to help us see that our hope is not in the strength of our own love, but rather in the power of God’s love. As St. Paul says in one of the most moving passages of Scripture, “I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).

All of us, in all of our strengths and all of our weaknesses, are powerless to defeat God’s purpose in Jesus Christ. Our flaws, our mistakes and inadequacies, our spiritual mediocrity, and our self-sabotage are impotent in the face of God’s love. For this reason, the martyrs do not bear witness to the spiritual athleticism of remarkable men and women. Instead, they point to the relentless love of God in Jesus Christ. As the Preface for Holy Martyrs reads:

For you [God] are glorified when your saints are praised;
their very sufferings are but wonders of your might:
In your mercy you give ardor to their faith,
to their endurance you grant firm resolve,
and in their struggle the victory is yours,
through Christ our Lord.

What that means is this: Those who are faithful to God will in turn have his faithfulness at life’s ending, no matter how extreme the test.

Grace illuminates nature. The supernatural love of God in Jesus Christ that gives courage to the martyrs helps us better understand the natural loves of family, friends, honor, and integrity. The power of these loves—a power that can be so great that we’re willing to live and die to remain true to them—does not come from within the self. The mother does not conjure a love for her child out of her inner emotional resources. The same holds true for friends, honor, and integrity. Love’s power draws us out of ourselves. It comes from what is loved, not the one who loves.

Cemeteries and charnel houses

Allan Barton writes on an older Christian attitude toward burying and living with our ancestors:

As a historian I have long been perplexed by the modern notion that churchyards can be become ‘full’ and that we are running out of burial space for the dead. The idea that our historic churchyards with the marked graves of long-forgotten Victorians and Georgians, cannot be reused for the burial of modern people, is a bizarre notion and is at variance with the traditions and ideas of past generations, including the Victorians and Georgians who now dispossess our generation of the right to be buried in God’s acre. In the past the grave was not considered to be private, alienable property that could be occupied for perpetuity, the churchyard was considered a communal space that individuals borrowed to enable the clean and efficient decomposition of their shrouded corpses. Human remains would be kept within the confines of the church and churchyard for perpetuity, but the concept that an individual grave space was yours and yours alone, was unknown.

When I was Rector of a benefice in Norfolk, one pleasant September afternoon I went to conduct my first funeral in one if my four medieval churches. My first act as incumbent was to deal with a rather fine specific of a human jaw bone, complete with an excellent set of gnashers, which was presented to me by the churchwardens.  After I had conducted the funeral in the churchyard, the jaw bone was popped back into the ground as part of new grave’s infill. That was the way we operated in this church, one of my predecessors had the good sense to start to re-use part of the churchyard that had last been used in the eighteenth century. When new graves were cut the bones of the dead were quite often disturbed and were usually added to the infill of the new grave by the gravedigger to one side of the new coffin. In doing that we were to all intents and purposes following the pattern that persisted in past centuries. The defleshed bones of the long dead, made way for the freshly dead corpses of the current generation. This whole process was both pragmatic and sensible and a churchyard never came to be filled.

In many medieval images of the burial of the dead from illuminated manuscripts you can see such a process being undertaken, though with a bit less dignity and decorum than in my former parish churchyard. In the French images I share on here of that subject matter, the gravediggers manhandle shrouded corpses into their last resting place in a shallow grave, while around the graves, lying on the ground are the skulls and bones of those accidentally exhumed in the process.

Notice in the image above the little painted grave markers that mark the burial place. For both economical and for practical purposes, these were made of wood.  Intended to last a generation or two at the most, they lasted just long enough for the deceased pass out of mind. Unlike the stone headstones favoured in the recent past, they were designed to decay and to be temporary.

Rather than returning the bones to the ground as part of the grave infill, it was quite common in the later medieval period, for the bones disinterred during the digging of graves, to be added to a communal bone hole or a structure called a charnel house. …

The bones were originally arranged in heaps against three walls of the chamber. Long bones in stacks, skulls on the tops of each heap. In the Middle Ages the walls of the end wall of the chamber was painted and in the nineteenth century there were still faint traces of an image of the Resurrection of Christ, wonderful fitting for a chamber devoted to those awaiting the general resurrection.

There’s one of these old-style churches in Lewes, Delaware—with its little cemetery in what would be the well-manicured front lawn of a modern suburban church. The Lewes church I’m thinking of looks precisely like what it is—something from another time. I found the description of the burial and charnel house practices of the past shocking, frankly. But maybe some movement toward those practices might help shock us into remembering that it’s not a tidy gravesite that we should look forward to, but rather the resurrection itself. If we’re overly concerned with the former, we’re probably not concerned enough with the latter.