Tag Archives: Easter

Wipo of Burgundy: Our Easter Template of Ordinary Discipleship

28 Apr

When I left the Easter Saturday Mass at St. Monica’s yesterday morning, the alleluias were ringing in my ears. It had been an exhilarating way to round out the Octave, with lots enthusiastic singing and pervasive joy – alleluia indeed!

Of special note was Fr. Jacob Meyer’s resonant intoning of the Easter Sequence, Victimae paschali laudes (“Christians, Praise the Paschal Victim”) – in Latin. Since my own Latin is considerably rusty, I scrambled with a hymnal to find an English translation so I could follow along, and I couldn’t help taking note of the Sequence’s author at the bottom of the page: “ascr. to Wipo of Burgundy, d. 1048.”

Yes, that’s right, Wipo. Not exactly a household name (and neither are its variant renderings, “Wippo” and “Wigbert”), and I admit I did a big double take the first time I spied it. Nonetheless, you’ll find it in every hymnal’s fine print, although it’s usually hedged a bit with that appended “ascribed to” disclaimer – something that accompanies a lot of ancient attributions. However, the ascription is strong enough that it was repeated three times in the St. Monica hymnal’s index in conjunction with three different settings of the work.

Born around the year 1000, Wipo was ordained a priest, and then he served as a chaplain for the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II. Wipo also wrote poetry and apothegms, and he authored several works of history and biography that are respected for their stylistic panache and relative objectivity. But, as far as ecclesial matters are concerned, Wipo is just a tentative footnote in our modern hymnals. Neither a pope nor a bishop; not a saint nor a Doctor of the Church; just Wipo – or Wippo, or Wigbert – who may have penned a great Paschal poem that was eventually incorporated into our Sacramentary and Eastertide observances.

In other words, a liturgical one-hit wonder.

And, yet, what a wonder it is. “One of the finest of the transitional Sequences,” according to Sr. J. Isaac Jogues Rousseau, SSND. We all heard Wipo’s masterpiece on Easter Sunday, when it’s obligatory every year, and maybe you’ve been hearing it (or singing it yourself) throughout the week at daily Mass. Like other Sequences, it precedes the proclamation of the day’s Gospel, and it’s an extra, especially jubilant recapitulation of the festival’s core themes – in this case, the Paschal feast’s good news of redemption through Jesus Christ, our resurrected savior.

About halfway through, it declares, “O Mary, come and say what you saw at break of day” – the ideal lead-in to yesterday’s Gospel wherein Mary Magdalene reports to the skeptical Apostles her encounter with the risen Christ. The Eleven likewise balk at a similar testimony from the two Emmaus disciples, and so Jesus finally confronts them in person – no denying the Resurrection at that point! After upbraiding the Apostles for their unbelief, Jesus repeats to them what he’d told Mary: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16.15).

That’s the same commission we heard at the end of the Sequence: “Share the good news, sing joyfully: his death is victory!” Wipo’s Easter poem jubilantly sums up the essence of what we’ve been celebrating throughout the Octave – what we’re living, in fact, as contemporary witnesses to our own transforming encounters with the risen Lord.

And, following Wipo’s lead, those encounters are worth rhapsodizing about, in word and deed. May we do so with flair and delight throughout the sequence of all our days, and may a Wipo-like obscurity attend our efforts that humility be preserved. For even if, with God’s grace, we end up accomplishing great things in temporal terms, it’ll be in our interests if “ascr. to” appends to our names, both now and forever. “Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one,” writes Thomas Merton, “but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great.”

Amen. Al-le-lu-ia.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Highlander, Pig Brains, and Easter: St. Beuno of Wales

21 Apr

Remember Highlander (1986)? It’s about a race of immortals who rattle around the centuries trying to wipe each other out. “In the end,” declaims one of them (played by the immortal Sean Connery), “there can be only one.” Plus there’s this: The only way to kill one of these guys is to lop off his head. And when I say lop, I mean lop – with a three-foot broadsword that looks like it weighs more than my Camry.

It’s a fun movie – really! – but don’t take my word for it. “People hate Highlander because it’s cheesy, bombastic, and absurd,” acknowledges the micro-review on Rotten Tomatoes. “And people love it for the same reasons.” Actually, I loved it as a teen because, well, it was about a bunch of tough hombres chasing each other around the world. Forever. With Medieval swords. What’s not to love?

And now, good news! On the off chance the Highlander species of perpetual peripatetics might actually exist, there’s late word that not even decapitation need hold them back. It seems that researchers at Yale obtained a bunch of pig heads from a slaughterhouse and perfused their brains with a special hemoglobin-rich fluid. The result? Detectable brain activity, even hours after the heads had been severed from their respective bodies.

Now, true, it wasn’t the kind of activity that you’d associate with cognition or awareness, but it was still actual, measurable cellular commotion in grey matter long deemed defunct – or at least theoretically defunct. I mean, what else could it be after an extensive detachment, in both time and space, from any blood-pumping heart or other vital organs? “Assuming always that this work is replicated,” commented Hank Greely of the International Neuroethics Society, “I think it’s going to force us to think harder about how we declare somebody dead or not.”

Right – mortals and immortals alike.

Anyway, it’s funny that the pig brain story was hitting my newsfeed just as Holy Week was getting underway because Easter this year happens to coincide with saint’s day that has beheading and resuscitation overtones. Today is the feast of St. Beuno, a holy monk who is said to have evangelized much of northern Wales in the 7th century. A benefactor set Beuno up with a tract of land in Gwynedd where the saint founded a monastic community, and where he served as abbot until his death on April 21, 640. The monastery is gone now, but the chapel where he was buried remains intact.

The story goes that Beuno’s own niece, St. Winifred, was intent on a life of religion herself in imitation of her pious kinsman. Yet, the comely Winifred had attracted the attention of Prince Caradog, an ardent suitor. When she rebuffed him, the prince flew into a violent rage, cut off her head, and fled. The spot where Winifred’s head landed came alive with a gushing spring – the famed Holywell which became known for its healing properties and which acquired a reputation as the “Lourdes of Wales.”

End of story? Hardly. Like the Yale researchers, Beuno was not to be outdone by a mere beheading. When the Abbot heard of his niece’s demise, he interrupted the Mass he’d been celebrating, hurried to put Winifred back together, top to bottom, and then resumed the liturgy, offering impassioned prayers for the young woman’s healing. Sure enough, Winifred revived, “as if awakening from a deep slumber,” according to the legend, and she “rose up with no sign of the severance of the head except a thin white circle round her neck.”

Ah, a thin white circle around her neck – a scar, as it were, after a miraculous healing. Couldn’t God have accomplished that healing through Beuno’s prayers without leaving a scar? Of course, but he didn’t. No doubt, Winifred was conscious of that scar the rest of her life, and it just may have played a part in her becoming the great saint that she did – someone remembered for having “lived in almost perpetual ecstasy and to have had familiar converse with God.” Maybe every time she felt it – every time she saw it when she was gazing into the waters of Holywell – she was prompted to new heights of gratitude and surrender to the Lord.

And that’s what lends a certain verisimilitude to Winifred’s tale despite its preposterous premise, for God has a tendency to leave scars behind for our own good.

Today we’re all celebrating the Resurrection, but next Sunday, we’ll hear St. Thomas cast doubt on the Easter outrage: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

The Lord was happy to oblige: “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.’”

This Easter season, consider getting reacquainted with your own lingering scars that the Lord has seen fit to leave with you – he must’ve had a reason. And then, in the spirit of St. Winifred, perhaps use them as launching pads for ever grander gestures of fidelity and love. May every scar we retain and associate with our resurrections lead us to say with St. Thomas – through our words and our deeds – “My Lord and my God!”
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Pope St. Vitalian: Of Calendars, Celts, and Christian Unity

27 Jan

I’m finally reading through Sheed and Ward’s Saints are Not Sad (1949), a collection of hagiographic portraits by some of Catholic England’s most notable authors of the last century. Just recently, I finished Fr. Vincent McNabb’s chapter on St. Columbanus, the Irish missionary-monk and founder of Italy’s Bobbio Abbey, a bulwark against Arianism and a benchmark of orthodoxy for centuries. The saint’s life story is a fascinating one, but I was especially diverted to discover his connections with the Easter controversy – that knotty calendrical conundrum concerning how Christians should calculate the date we commemorate the Resurrection every year.

Unlike Christmas, which is a fixed date that can fall on any day of the week, Easter has always been observed on a Sunday – at least since the fourth century when the Council of Nicaea made it mandatory. But which Sunday was to be the Easter Sunday each year was left up for grabs, and Christians have been divided over the question ever since – especially Christians East and West. Catholics and virtually all Protestant denominations follow one method for determining the date of Easter, and most of the Orthodox world follows another. Rarely do our Easter celebrations coincide – an ecumenical blight that is not likely to be repaired any time soon.

But even the West was divided on the Easter question for many centuries. By Columbanus’ day, the bulk of the Catholic world followed a Roman calculation, which disregarded Jewish Passover reckonings, yet, until the late seventh century, British and Irish Christians followed an older, possibly more Hebraic formulation – a formulation that St. Columbanus vigorously defended. “Little is known of how the British and Irish Churches computed their Easter,” writes McNabb. “Only one thing is quite certain, that they kept the Easter as first taught them by Rome” – that is, they refused to follow what was then the fashion in Rome because they were dedicated to the tradition that they’d received from Rome many centuries before that. And when the British churches started caving to the contemporary majority Roman usage, the Irish churches stubbornly clung to what they saw as the preeminent and more ancient Apostolic practice.

Such a Romish kerfuffle could only be sorted out by a Roman Pontiff, and that’s exactly what happened. Elected in 657, Pope St. Vitalian had to grapple with various heresies and rambunctious autocrats, but perhaps his crowning achievement was shepherding a resolution of the Easter question, along with other disputes between Rome and Ireland, thus bringing the Celtic churches completely into the Catholic fold.

In this, St. Vitalian demonstrated what for me, while still a Catholic wannabe, was so attractive about the papacy – that is, why we need it and how it works. “The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful,” reads Lumen Gentium (§23) – specifically, the bishops and faithful already in union with the successor of Peter himself. We don’t need a CEO of the whole world – or even of all Christians. What we need – what Christ provided us – is a supreme pastor and final arbiter who’ll settle our own in-house disputes first and keep the family together.

And that’s what Pope Vitalian did. Maybe the rest of Christendom went on doing their own thing when it came to Easter – a tragedy, to be sure. Yet what was essential, at least for the Papa, was that all his own flock came around to celebrating the feast together every year. With God’s help, he pulled it off in the end, and we universally rejoice in his triumph each spring. Alleluia!

Vitalian died in 672 on January 27 (his feast day), and he is buried in St. Peter’s Basilica.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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.

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