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Those Empty Pews: Thoughts on Mass Attendance

14 Jan


“We always offer the same Lamb, not one today and another tomorrow, but always the same one. For this reason the sacrifice is always only one.”
~ St. John Chrysostom

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36 Hours on the Streets of Chicago

7 Jan

“The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own self-hood.”
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

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A Marxist Christmastide: Celebrating the Season with Silliness

5 Jan

Driftwood: It’s all right. That’s, that’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a sanity clause.
Fiorello: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause! (A Night at the Opera [1935])

Christmas is not only a feast of children, but in some sense a feast of fools (Chesterton).

On Wednesday, the second day of the Christmas Octave, I was heading over to Kroger to pick up some groceries, and I fired up the minivan. The radio was still preset to the station that had been playing Christmas music 24/7 since Thanksgiving, and when I turned the key, guess what I heard? Bing Crosby? Vince Guaraldi Trio? Burl Ives?!

No, of course not. Christmas was over, as far as the radio station and its commercial sponsors were concerned. Back to the easy listening and soft rock – like Kool and the Gang, which is what actually started playing. “Celebrate good times,” they sang, “come on!”

It was a bit jarring – in the same way that it’s jarring when we start seeing barren fir trees abandoned at the curbside on December 26. But, you know, Kool was making a very good, seasonally appropriate point: It’s still Christmas – the Octave, the Twelve Days, even Christmastide until the Baptism of the Lord! Good times for weeks to come. Time to celebrate – come on!

However, let’s face it, that’s hard to do when the world around us – the world we inhabit most the time – has already moved on. We’ve got returns to make at the mall, new year’s resolutions to pretend we’ll keep, and tax receipts – ugh – to start organizing. Who can keep up a jolly Christmas spirit under those circumstances?

We can – I know we can! We just need a little help.

Now, it’s true, as Pope Francis points out, that true joy is more than frivolity and merrymaking. In his Christmas message to the Vatican staff, he noted that saints are “joyful people, not because they are always laughing, no, but because they are very serene inside and they know how to spread it to others.” Fair enough, but I’d still argue that conjuring up some laughter is a pretty good way to get into a joyful groove – or to keep that Christmas one going for a couple weeks more.

So, my solution? Funny movies – old funny movies. The kind that rely on corny jokes and slapstick to elicit mirth. They’re like celluloid comfort food, and they can transform even the most wintry dumps into yulish gaiety.

Frank Capra and the Thin Man corpus come to mind, but, for my money, there’s nothing like a Marx Brothers film to get the giggles going. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo (and their entourage of regulars) were masters of translating screwball vaudeville antics to the silver screen. We own the MB opera omnia on DVD, but you can find them in the public library easy enough, and probably most of them are free to watch on the internet somewhere. For the purposes of stirring up hilarity, any of them will do, but here are three that I think highlight especially Christmaslike values.

  1. A Night in Casablanca (1946): Note the year – just after the end of World War II. The Marx Brothers were the sons of Jewish immigrants, and so they were certainly attuned to Nazi atrocities and the collapse of the European order. Even so, they managed to make a comedy out of postwar Axis shenanigans, playing off the storyline (and popularity) of the earlier Bogart/Bergman classic. Groucho takes over management of a hotel that’s crawling with spies and counter-spies. Somehow, he and his looney assistants have to prevent the local Nazi fugitives from accessing a hidden cache of stolen art treasures. There’s danger and romance and risk – all elements in the Christmas story itself – not to mention a happy ending: The bad guys are vanquished, and the Brothers survive to carry on in their madcap ways.
  2. Room Service (1938): Hospitality is a major Christmas theme – something we glimpse in the innkeeper’s (perhaps grudging) provision for the Holy Family and the grand welcome they receive from the shepherds, not to mention the equally grand welcome we’re meant to give the Christ child ourselves – and it’s a theme central to this film. Groucho and company (including a youthful Lucille Ball) are struggling to find financial backing for a Broadway musical, and they’re camping out (along with the entire cast) in the White Wave Hotel. As the bills mount, the hotel’s supervising director demands that the whole gang be tossed out. The Marx Brothers manage to stay put by turning their suite into a sick room, complete with bedridden “patient,” thus hoping to play off the director’s better nature and sympathies. The ruse works, the musical finds a backer, and accounts are all squared in the end – although the hornswoggled director faints when the patient, who’d expired, shows up again in the last scene.
  3. Duck Soup (1933): Last month, I had the privilege of attending the one-day screening of Peter Jackson’s incredible World War I documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old (2018). By weaving together restored footage and contemporary voiceovers, Jackson brought to life what actual combat was like in the trenches. As reviewer Scout Tofoya notes, the film was “not about the mindlessness of combat and murder, but of the identities lost and forged by gunfire,” although one of the veterans at the end of the film does voice his skepticism that any of it made sense or was worth it. As I watched Jackson’s masterful achievement, I couldn’t help thinking about the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, which does address the mindlessness of war, not to mention the airy detachment of those behind the lines that foment it. By poking fun at warmaking, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo indirectly make a solid case for invoking the Prince of Peace and avoiding violence as a means of problem-solving at all costs. When Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) starts singing a patriotic anthem of victory at the close, there’s an ironic satisfaction in watching the brothers pummel her with vegetables.

So, did my Christmas allusions seem a bit forced? Perhaps. The truth is that I chose to comment on those three particular films because they’re the ones my son, Nicky, and I enjoyed most recently. And I can tell you that no time was wasted in analyzing their motifs and underlying messages. We just sat there together and yukked it up – something that is surely at the heart of the Christmas event, and, by extension, of the Faith itself. “The important thing in life is…to keep alive in oneself the immortal power of astonishment and laughter,” writes Chesterton. “Religion is interested not in whether a man is happy, but whether he is still alive, whether he can still react in a normal way to new things, whether he blinks in a blinding light or laughs when he tickled.”

It’s still Christmas season, so keep watching your favorite Christmas movies. But as January slides into February and beyond, consider including a Marx Brothers classic – any of them – into your film-viewing line-up. Just for the laughs. It’s a great way to help you sustain, come what may, a jovial and joyful Christmas spirit, and celebrate good times the whole year long.
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Anastasia: The Patron Saint of Christmas

30 Dec

Good friends of ours have a daughter named Anastasia. One day, long ago, I betrayed an astonishing ignorance by expressing curiosity about why she’d been named after a Russian princess instead of a saint. “What are you talking about?” my wife remonstrated with relish. “Anastasia is mentioned in the Roman Canon!”

She was right, of course, and I was justly chastened. But how could I’ve missed St. Anastasia in my hagiographic formation? As a convert, the lives of the saints were front and center in my acclimation to things Catholic, and yet, somehow, Anastasia fell completely off my map.

Nonetheless, and surprisingly, I didn’t immediately remedy that glaring oversight, and for years now, I’ve been shrugging whenever Anastasia’s name comes up in Eucharistic Prayer I. “Yup,” I’ll think to myself, “she’s definitely a saint – whoever she is.” Sheer laziness, no doubt, and in line with my inexcusable neglect of the other obscure names in that ancient liturgy – like Marcellinus, for instance, and Sixtus. I’ve also taken refuge in the citation of St. Cecilia – the namesake of my own daughter. I’ll anticipate its arrival as the other martyrs tick by, then sigh and smile and say a prayer for my girl as St. Anastasia is finally referenced at the end. In this way, my oblivion has persisted undisturbed.

No more.

I try to get to daily Mass during the Octave of Christmas, and this past week, the various celebrants of the Masses I’ve attended have all opted for EP I. Consequently, Anastasia’s name has briefly flittered in my consciousness, day after day, but on Friday, something changed. For whatever reason, that day, her name really popped out at me – grace, no doubt, and maybe a prompt from my guardian angel (or perhaps the saint herself?). “Anastasia,” I murmured. “Anastasia? No clue.” I determined on the spot to track down her story.

Which I did – in several sources. And you know what? There isn’t one.

At least, there isn’t a reliable one. The popular 6th-century passio that purportedly tells her dramatic tale is really just pious fiction – as is her connection with another obscure EP I martyr, Chrysogonus. Admittedly, the Romans have been venerating Anastasia since the 5th century, when her name was inserted in the Roman Canon, and there’s even a venerable basilica dedicated to her at the base of the Palatine Hill. However, it’s likely that the church’s construction was simply underwritten by a similarly named Roman matron, and its association with the saint simply evolved over time.

The truth is that we know next to nothing about EP I’s Anastasia. In fact, my favorite source for saint lore – John Coulson’s excellent Concise Biographical Dictionary (1958) – includes only a couple tentative lines about her: “Possibly martyred under Diocletian at Sirmium in Pannonia, she is commemorated at the second mass of Christmas.” Even the date of her death is up for grabs – “+304?” is how it reads in Coulson.

But did you catch that bit about the second Christmas Mass? You might be aware that there are different sets of readings for Christmas that correspond with different times of day. This is a holdover from when three distinct liturgies were celebrated for the feast: One at midnight, one at dawn, and one later in the day. For centuries, popes would celebrate this Christmas triduum at different locations in Rome, with a procession from one to the next. Thus, the feast of the incarnation would commence at Midnight on December 25 in the Basilica of St. Mary Major, and it would conclude with a late-morning Mass at St. Peter’s. But in between, at dawn, there was a stop at the church dedicated to St. Anastasia – the mysterious heroine of the Faith whose martyrdom is recorded as having taken place on Christmas day – and the liturgy celebrated there was in honor of her rather than the Word made flesh.

So, my intuition (inspiration?) this week to finally follow up on my Anastasia lacuna is indeed timely: She’s not only a Christmas saint, she’s the Christmas saint whose legacy used to merit a liturgical detour amid the pivotal feast’s most solemn observances.

But…why? There’s all manner of complicated historical speculation about this, but, for me, I’d like to credit Anastasia’s obscurity for this singular (albeit long discontinued) honor. What better way to emphasize the poverty and humility of our infant savior than by giving a nod to this most anonymous of saints?

Plus, there’s also this: Anastasia, in Greek, means “she of the Resurrection.” She’s not only the Christmas saint, but an Easter one as well! Her prominence in the ancient Christmas triduum could be seen as a subtle nominal precursor of the even greater Triduum which followed in the spring.

We no longer commemorate Anastasia in a special way on Christmas mornings, but I know I’ll be listening for her name in the Roman Canon from now on and asking for her intercession. Like Anastasia, I want to be of the Resurrection, too. Alleluia.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Remembering the ‘Christmas Truce’ of WWI

28 Dec

“That the guns may fall silent
at least upon the night the angels sang.”
~ Pope Benedict XV

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The Gift of Listening

21 Dec

“What’s the trouble, sweetheart?”

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Getting Un-Tilted this Advent

17 Dec

“For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground” (Bar 5.7).

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