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Thoughts of Deacon Anthony …

February 2nd - a Day with Three Liturgical Names

When I was a child growing up in Brooklyn, I can remember an argument between my grandparents. I do not remember the details of the argument, but I do remember my grandfather getting the worst of it, so finally he said to my grandmother tenderly: "Che gelida manina, se la lasci discarder," "How cold your little hand is, let me warm it for you," words taken from the opera "La Boheme." He knew how much his wife loved the opera, and how much she loved him, so he ended up doing what she wanted.

What struck me about this exchange was the sacredness with which they treated each other --- argument not withstanding. They lived in a time when the sacred was seen everywhere.

February 2nd became sacred for Christians, because this is the day that remembers and celebrates the Presentation of the Lord; this day also had two other liturgical names: Candlemas Day and the Purification of the Blessed Mother (old name for this day).

Candlemas Day comes midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox --- in other words, the midpoint of winter --- when the ruling darkness of winter will soon give way to the light of spring.

Once, the Christmas season lasted until Candlemas Day. One could see the connection to the Presentation: when Simeon announced in the Temple, referring to the baby Jesus, "…a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel."  The light of Christ, like the light of spring, comes into the darkness of our lives. So we celebrate by blessing and distributing candles in church! Some churches even have candle processions.

Do you remember when women were "Churched" after giving birth? That was a remembrance of the Purification of the Blessed Mother, which in the old rite coincided with the Presentation and Candlemas Day. The ritual uncleanness for both the Purification (Mosaic Law) and the Churching (old Christian custom) had nothing to do with the mother’s sin – either Mary’s, who had no sin, or for that matter, any other mother’s. Rather when a woman gave birth, she was thought to be in a special and sacred way with God, God who is the author of life. The Churching, which occurred after an interval of rest at home, returned her to normal society. The mother, as it was thought, experienced transcendence – she experienced the sacred --- but now she had to be helped to reenter ordinary life. (Nowadays the blessing of the mother usually takes place during the baptism of her child.)

All these things came from a time when the sacred was seen in everything. Liturgy then gave a special focus and expression to what was already in our lives.

"How cold your little hand is, let me warm it for you." Nowadays we do not speak to each other in such a manner. But there was a time when we took the time to see the image of God in each other. We saw the divine in the ordinary affairs of life. Our hearts pined for the light of Christ.

Maybe Grandma and Grandpa had it right.

Great liturgy does not start in the church. It starts before we get to church. It starts in our hearts, in the way we treat each other.

At the end of our lives, when we go to meet our Lord, I do not think He will so much ask us our opinions about the great issues of our day, as ask us "Did you see me in the people I placed in your life?" "When you brought your gift to the altar and then remembered your brother had something against you, did you leave your gift there and go first to be reconciled to your brother and then come to offer your gift?"

The Angelic Doctor Saint and the American Scene

As I was watching a television debate on some of the outstanding issues affecting America today, I thought what if one of the debaters made the following observation:

"--- no one should be influenced by love or hate for the person who has the opinion but rather by the desire to ascertain the truth. We ought to love both sides, those whose opinion we follow and those whose opinion we reject. For both parties are striving to discover the truth and have helped us in this task."

Moreover what would you think if that same debater saw a strong point favoring the opposing side, which the opposing side missed, but then gave the opposing side the point that it missed?

Such a person did exist; his name is St. Thomas Aquinas and he was born in 1224/5 in Roccasecca, Italy (near Naples). His saint’s day is January 28th and he is also called the Angelic Doctor because several popes have held him to be the model of what Catholic intellectual discourse and scholarship is all about. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote many theological treatises, expositions, and commentaries, but his signature work is the "Summa Theologiae" a massive summary of Catholic theology which was intended as a manual for beginners in theology. St. Thomas wrote his "manual" in a debating style looking for the strongest possible arguments against each Catholic point --- even points that the other side missed --- before answering them.

When I was a young student studying philosophy, I remember discovering a small, slim volume entitled "The Sentences of Peter Lombard" in the university library. This was a standard theological textbook from the early Middle Ages. Students going on for a Master’s degree would write a commentary on the "The Sentences." When I saw St. Thomas’ commentary, I was astounded to see that it was the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I knew then that St. Thomas was someone extraordinary. Later I discovered that St. Thomas’ real gift was his humility.

What I came to appreciate about St. Thomas was his ability to move from heady scholarship to touch the common person. During the height of his career he taught in Latin, the lingua franca of scholarship of the day, and at several universities, but the last year of his life, 1273, he returned to his native Naples, where he could once more speak to friends and relatives in his native Neapolitan dialect. Home at last, he delivered 59 Lenten homilies in San Domenico church in Naples. The simple folk came from all over the country side to hear him. One scholar said "he was heard by people with such reverence that it was as if his preaching came from God." Unfortunately these homilies were summarized in what was considered to be scholarly Latin, not Italian, so that they lack the bravura that would have showed their appeal to the ear of a peasant.

If St. Thomas Aquinas were to speak to us today, I think he would say to us --- when you judge things, strive always to be objective. But when you judge people, be biased --- biased in their favor, think them to be good, unless you have overwhelming evidence to the contrary. "For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not sinners do the same?"

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