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At Least On Sunday – Sunday in the Octave of Christmas: Heartbreak

St. Philip Neri (+1595) was praying one night, as he often did, in the Catacombs of St. Sebastian.  A ball of light came down from above and entered his mouth.  He was so overwhelmed by the love of God that he cried out, “Enough, Lord! I cannot take anymore” and passed out.  When he awoke, he found that his chest had swollen outward.  When St. Philip died and an autopsy was performed, it was found that his heart was so enlarged that it broke his ribs.  In the year that followed this great increase of his heart, others could sometime hear it beating and light would shine from his chest as he celebrated Mass, when he would also levitate.

I’ve recently been enjoying closeup photos of the nativity scene or in Italian presepio from my adoptive parish in Rome, Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini, which is the seat of the activity of the Archconfraternity of that same name founded by St. Philip.  All sorts of daily activities are going on in the streets of this microcosm of the Roman neighborhood of Regola, which mysteriously is also Bethlehem where the shepherds and the Magi are adoring Baby Jesus.  A Pope tricked out in spiffy gear that we haven’t seen since February 2013 is kneeling in meditation before the manger crip.  There are the requisite pastori figures which include couples courting, nobles strolling, beggars with bowls by madonelle the typical Roman Marian street shrines, a hungry boy by a vendor frying ciambelline, a butcher with interested dogs and cats and a rat, muleteers, nuns, an osteria with clients eating spaghetti with their hands – as it used to be, Dominican friars, zampognari or shepherds with bagpipes, and an ugly Devil chained to a rock behind the Holy Family. St. Philip himself is present in the street, washing the feet of a pilgrim to Rome with members of the Archconfraternity in their red habits.

This year has been dubbed the 700th year anniversary of when St. Francis of Assisi made the first nativity scene at Greccio, Italy.   For seven centuries these nativity scenes have be crafted and tended and perfected and erected and handed down.

One purpose of our Advent preparations and our Christmas celebrations is, even in the midst of our busy and distracting daily lives, to construct a manger throne for Christ to fill.  This is why we make these beautiful scenes and treasure those we have and hand down.  This is why secularists fiercely fight them.  How obvious they are, and to be pitied.

The crib of our hearts must be the throne of the Christ Child, with His purity and trust.

The Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux expressed in one of her poems (in translation)…

Jesus thy treasure, thine alone:
Is telling thee His little mind;
He asks of thee a golden throne,
None in the stable can He find,
The stable, like the sinful heart,
To Him no smiling beauty shows,
And never can He there repose
But must perforce in pain depart. . .
Love, Sister, give,
That sinners live.
Their souls, the throne this Child aspires,
But ah! still more
Doth He implore,
Your heart the throne of His desires!

Nothing other than God must occupy the throne of our heart.  Any other thing is created, finite, and passing, always on the verge of being lost which leaves the soul unquiet.  St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) famously wrote that unless our hearts rest in God they will ever be restless.  So, God strives for our hearts and our hearts strive for God.  Perhaps this is one reason why Our Lord, the Eternal Word, became Incarnate as a speechless baby: to melt and shape our hearts into His throne.

However, the Child, didn’t stay tiny. We read in Sunday’s Gospel from Luke 2 He “grew and became strong”.  So too in the course of our lives the crib of our hearts must also grow to be more heart-like, more throne like.   This is perhaps why some hold out against the radically unmerited gift of the Christ Child’s little hand: the wood of the manger foreshadows the wood of the Cross.  Our heart Crib must also grow Cross like.

In 2 Peter 3:18 we are told by the Vicar of Christ to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.    Our hearts must grow, but so must our minds.  How shall we build a crib for Christ in our minds as well as our hearts?

First, we have been baptized so that we, shedding the darkening of sin, we can receive more graces and the other sacraments and we can have a deeper understanding through the supernatural theological virtue of Faith.  We are confirmed, our character is deepened and strengthened.  We become Temples of the Holy Spirit in a new way and we can expand and reinforce our mind-heart crib as Christ’s life grows in us.  We must never neglect our cribs.  We have to maintain them, so that Christ can constantly be born and laid into our crib day in and day out, year in and year out, success and loss, joyful and mourning, strong and failing.  We strengthen our crib and we beautify them with good Holy Communions received in the state of grace, never thinking ever smudge or dent our thrones by receiving unworthily, without merit and committing sacrilege.  We adorn and make our crib lovely with marriage and with holy orders.

Christ always has more to give, so we must be ever ready to receive.  There’s always more to know, as well.  As Christ grew strong in “in wisdom and knowledge” (Luke 2:52), our Faith must as well.  Study.  Review.  Teach the Faith.  It is a work of mercy.

It helps to think of the Faith in two ways.  There is a Faith in which we believe, fides quae creditur, a content that we can study and memorize.  There is a Faith by which we believe, fides qua creditur, a content that enables us to understand and love.  The content of each way of thinking of Faith, which in the end are really just one way, is not abstract formulae or dry ink.  The true content is a Person, Jesus Christ, with whom can have a personal relationship.

As I write, the 1st anniversary of the death of Benedict XVI is upon us, 31 December.  During my time in Rome, I had many opportunities to talk to Card. Ratzinger and hear his conferences.  In one conference, he responded to a question about his differences with fellow German and a major source of today’s chaos in the Church, the Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner.  Rahner, as I understand him – which is not at all possible, really – tried to force God into the category of an abstraction, a kind of “Existenzmodus”.  After Ratzinger explained Rahner’s notion, he said, that, of course, an “existence mode” didn’t need a mother, and “you cannot pray to an Existenzmodus”.

Perhaps Father Rahner might have spent more time contemplating the Christ Child, whose first throne was Mary’s Heart.

Mary conceived Christ in the throne of her Heart before she conceived Him below her Heart.  From even before and from that moment onward, her Heart was never anything other than Christ’s throne, beating with His, growing and expanding.  And, because the Crib is the Cross, being pierced as well.  So also must our hearts, which have the Cross which grows from the Crib, must break even as they expand to bursting with the love of God.

In these fleeting days of the short Christmas season, down to the Feast of the Presentation, perhaps it would be helpful to make a self-examination of ways in which you are growing your Crib Cross heart, “growing in wisdom and knowledge”.  Tend your throne with deepening your fides quae and your fides qua.

Pray for the repose of the soul of Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XIV.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in pease.  May his soul and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

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