Friday, December 06, 2019

Father Nicholas: The REAL Santa Claus

When I was young and growing up in Ohio, some of my classmates would leave their shoes outside the bedroom door on the night of the fifth of December, so that Saint Nicholas would leave them treats for the next morning.

We never did that at our house, but I did ask Mom how it was that Saint Nicholas got to be called Santa Claus. By this time I had already determined a connection between the two. But while my mother was salutatorian of her high school class -- there were about a dozen students in her class at most, but I digress -- she was not one to wear her erudition on her sleeve. So, rather than go into an entymological treatise on the subject, she simply told me: “Say ‘Santa Claus’ three times real fast.”

That carried me over for at least a few years.

No good Catholic home is without an answer to the question of whether there is such a thing as Santa Claus. There is, but we are accustomed to the corruption of his real name, one that developed over the centuries. By the time devotion to Saint Nicholas reached Europe, he was known by different names. In the British Isles, he was "Father Christmas." In the Netherlands, he was "Sinterklaas." By the 19th century, periodicals such as Harper's Bazaar, and promoters of a fountain beverage known as Coca-Cola, had not only transformed the name, but the bright red costume with the white-fur trim, both of which we recognize today.

Whatever people call him, or however they depict him, the Bishop of Myra in the fourth century is a real person, and he presently dwells in Heaven with the Communion of Saints. Our Mother the Church celebrates his feast on the sixth of December, in both the East and the West.

VIDEO: A variation on a theme.

Nicholas was no lightweight. He was in attendance at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325, when the Arian heresy was being debated. At one point, he became so enraged with the Bishop Arius (whose errors were supported by the majority of bishops up to that time, remember?), that he supposedly punched Arius in the nose.

That's right, kids, Jolly Olde Saint Nick cold-cocked a heretic! (Some accounts say that he merely slapped him, but that's so pansy, who'd believe it?)

Anyway, many of the bishops there, including the Emperor Constantine, were scandalized by the assault, and given their sympathies, had Nicholas thrown in the dungeon. That night, the Emperor had a dream where Nicholas appeared to him, adorned in his finest liturgical vesture, and holding the Book of the Gospels. Awakened with a fright, the Emperor summoned his guards, who joined him as he raced to the dungeon, to find Nicholas unchained, with ... you guessed it.

The story varies in certain details. Some accounts tell of Our Lord and Our Lady appearing to Nicholas in the dungeon. I heard the above account from an "Old Calendar" Russian Orthodox priest. It is also said that Nicholas, now restored to his rightful place in the council, slept through the rest of the proceedings.

I can't say I blame him.

At the little Byzantine Rite parish where my son learned the Faith, as it had been taught to his mother, the Feast of Saint Nicholas is a particular cause for celebration. He is the patron of Byzantine Catholics, and his image graces the iconostasis on the far left side as viewed from the assembly. There is a special hymn dedicated to him ...

O kto kto, Nikolaja l'ubit,
O kto kto, Nikolaju sluzit.
    Tomu svjatyj Nikolaj,
    Na vsjakij cas pomahaj.
    Nikolaj, Nikolaj!

O who loves Nicholas the Saintly,
O who loves Nicholas the Saintly.
    Him will Nicholas receive,
    and give help in time of need.
    Nicholas, Nicholas!

... and the children in the School of Religion program do a pageant in his honor every Sunday closest to the sixth of December. It culminates in the arrival of an elderly man with a long white beard, dressed in the robes of an Eastern bishop, with whom the children meet in much the same manner as they would his commercialized (and most inauthentic) counterpart.

Paul used to get special icon cookies to take home, much like the ones that appear in the photos, emblazoned with the words "O Holy Nicholas" in Slavonic. These unique gingerbread cookies are from a recipe which appears at the stnicholascenter.org website.

I dearly miss that little parish. It has changed over more than three decades. Several years ago, they completed a new and larger house of worship, one that emulates the style common to Eastern Europe. But with every successful building project they have -- the parish hall, the rectory -- the place seems a little less homey, a little larger than life. Still, the spirit of Saint Nicholas reminds them every year, of the things that are passed on, and that remain the same.

Now, enough of this self-indulgent soul-searching. Let's go bake some cookies already!
 

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Advent I: Hope

Reading
(Romans 13:11)


Brethren: you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. R. Thanks be to God.

Oration

V. O Lord, hear our prayer.
R. And let our cry come unto Thee.
V. Let us pray ...

Stir up Thy power, we beseech Thee, O Lord, and come: that from the threatening dangers of our sins we may deserve to be rescued by Thy protection, and to be saved by Thy deliverance. Who livest and reignest, with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, world without end.

R. Amen.
 

Friday, November 01, 2019

Dia(s) de los Muertos

November is the month in which the Church devotes herself especially to the remembrance of those who have died in the previous year. As we acknowledge the communion of saints already "raised to the altar" in Heaven, we also pray for those among the righteous of this life, who nonetheless part from this earth with sufficient imperfections, so as to remain in a state of purification, at the end of which they are released to witness the Beatific Vision, to see their God face to face in Glory.

And so, as is said in the Book of Maccabees: “It is a good and holy thought to pray for the dead.” The chorus of both the "Church Suffering" (the souls of purgatory) and the "Church Triumphant" (the saints in heaven), along with the choirs of angels, are among the assembled at every Mass with the "Church Militant" (the rest of us).

The second day of the month is traditionally known as All Souls Day in the western Church. In Latin America and other former Spanish colonies, it is also known as "dia de los muertos" (day of the dead). But since the celebration usually would have begun on the eve of All Saints Day (All Hallows' Eve, or Halloween), it is often referred to in the plural. In former Hispanic territories such as the Philippines, Sal's family still goes to the cemetery where their deceased loved ones are buried, not simply to lay flowers, but for a picnic. That sounds rather bizarre to us in the States, unless you consider the mayhem we make out of Halloween. Customs associated with this holiday include building private altars honoring the deceased, using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed. It is likely that such confections are brought with the family to the graves.

The human skull is a favorite image associated with the feast. Homemade candies in the shape of skulls are given as treats to children, and adults are known to parade in the streets in costumes featuring their faces painted accordingly.

The origins of these customs have been traced back thousands of years, to indigenous observances dedicated to the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl. We can surmise that the Spanish colonizers "christianized" the observance in the manner that we know today.

In the month to come, man with black hat will feature other writings on matters of what Catholic teaching refers to as "The Last Things."
 

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Kevin Tierney Explains It All For You

In light of recent events in the Church, this writer has been loathe to elaborate in this venue. Some write the words we wish we had written ourselves. And so it goes. -- DLA

There are two ways people respond to the crisis in the Church among my trad brethren.

One is to think all is on the verge of being washed away, so desperate times call for desperate measures. I get the feeling, but that's not me.

I belong to a Church that is quite old, part of a wider community of salvation history that is impossibly old, near incomprehensible to our mind. A Church in which most of Her members are forgotten, and sink into anonymity. Where even great saints are barely remembered. They prefer it that way.

To be remembered mostly means you are remembered for something ill. In that case, the Pope's incessant vanity will be his downfall. He believes that he, and he alone, has the power to change history, to the point where it is unable to be altered again. If he is remembered as such, it may be in a way he does not want. And within a decade he will be dead, unable to prevent history from doing what she wants.

So I smile and say: "Good luck. We will be here long after you, comfortable with history forgetting us. Can you say the same?"

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Kevin is a recovering Catholic writer who lives in Brighton, Michigan, with his wife and two children. He is found on Facebook (facebook.com/kmtierney1) and Twitter (@catholicsmark).

Monday, October 14, 2019

Signs of the Times

I saw the work of one sign painter everywhere in the little town of Milford, Ohio, when I was growing up in the 1960s. It was as if the whole town was his client. I don't know what happened to him. And yet, when I visit about once every other year now -- none of the family lives there anymore, and the home was sold several years ago -- I see the remnant of the unknown sign painter, amidst the growing number of antique stores, gourmet restaurants, and ... of all things, microbreweries!

I was finishing high school in 1973, when Dad took me to "Commercial Square," a side street in downtown Cincinnati with a row of old factory warehouse buildings (since razed for what is now the Procter and Gamble headquarters) to visit what he called "a dying art." There, a couple of men ran a sign-painting business. Dad knew I aspired to go to college, but he didn't believe in accumulating massive debts and living on credit. (In fact, he never owned a credit card in his entire life.) If I could find a profession that didn't require a college education, so much the better. I viewed their work with some interest, but little enthusiasm.

I went on to complete my graphic design studies at the University of Cincinnati, graduating in 1978. Looking through old magazines and art manuals, I had a brief flirtation with calligraphy and hand-painted lettering. In the early 1980s, I did calligraphy for special occasions; family, parish, that sort of thing. I left it behind completely once the computer came to our office, and "desktop publishing" was the next big thing.

I came across a 2017 article in Monocle just recently ...

From traditional calligraphy to rare gold-leaf techniques, hand-worked lettering is back in demand. Monocle Films meets three sign painters whose eye-catching signs lend character to cities - and help businesses stand out.

... and I remembered that brief page of my history. Part of the trend may be a reaction to our slavery to technology, as if to lend credence to Newton's Law. Whatever is ancient is new again.

The total cost of my college education, culminating in 1978, has been estimated at around ten thousand dollars. I managed to recover that cost in short order.

And so it goes.
 

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Transfiguration

He said, write down the vision that you had,
and I wrote what I saw.

I saw the world kissing its own darkness.

It happened thus: I rose to meet the sunrise
and suddenly over the hill a horde appeared
dragging a huge tarpaulin.
They covered unwary land and hapless city
and all sweet water and fields.
And there was no sunrise.

I strained my eyes for a path and there was no path.
I bumped into trees and the bushes hissed at me,
and the long-armed brambles cried in a strident voice:
never through here!
But I struggled on, fumbling my beads of no.

I came to a dark city where nobody knew
that there was darkness.
And strange! though there was no light I still could see
what I did not want to see:
people who moved to the loveless embrace of folly.
They ate her gourmet foods; they drank her wine,
danced to her music that was crazed with rhythm,
were themselves discord though they knew it not,
or if they knew, cared less.

Outside the city wall, I stood in thought,
parried a moment with a frightening urge
to court the darkness;
but I held back, fearing the face of love.

Crossing a field I wandered through a desert
when suddenly behind a rock I found
a little sagebrush where a fire was burning,
shining and dancing. After my first amazed
worship of silence I was loud with praise.

I watched with fear the darkness circling it.
lunging against it, swirling a black cloak
to suffocate the light,
until the shades broke loose and one by one
in terror fled.

The flame burned on, innocent, unimperiled.
There was no darkness that could put it out.

-- Jessica Powers, aka Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit, OCD

Image above by James B Janknegt, used here without permission or shame.
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Saturday, July 20, 2019

Ten Years After

The Kopechne family has never commented publicly on the incident.

After the Eagle Landed

PHOTO: Neil Armstrong: Eagle Scout, Astronaut, Famous Guy. I met him. Twice.

Fifty years ago today, a man set foot on a celestial body other than this one for the first time, ever. The choice for this honor was made for a reason, and this writer gained some insight into the man on two occasions.

That's right, I met Neil Armstrong, twice.

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It was a Saturday afternoon in January of 1972, at the Emery Theater in downtown Cincinnati, when the Dan Beard Council Eagle Scout Class of 1971 gathered to be recognized en masse. Mom and I were sitting right behind a brother Eagle, the boy who grew up to be local TV news broadcaster Rob Braun. No, he wasn't famous back then, but his dad, Bob Braun, had already cleared a path in the local entertainment industry, as a show host and pop recording artist.

But, I digress.

VIDEO: Rob Braun: Eagle Scout, Local Newscaster, Semi-Famous Guy. I sat behind him. Once.

The keynote speaker was another brother Eagle, in the person of Neil Armstrong, of Troop 14, Wapakoneta, Ohio (one of the last towns in the Midwest where you could make a phone call for a nickel and not yet a dime. But again, I digress). Before it was over, we all got to go up there, get a certificate, and shake his hand, when I said something stupid like "Gee, I'm all shook up." He appeared to be amused.

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We would meet again.

By that time, Armstrong had recently accepted a teaching position in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. He accepted this offer over that of his own alma mater, Purdue, because UC had a small aerospace department. He was immediately given full professorship, in spite of having only a masters degree from the University of Southern California. The College of Engineering was next door to the very different College of Design, Architecture, and Art, where in 1973, I had begun my first year as a graphic design major. In the spring quarter of 1974, the Design Fundamentals class broke up into small groups for a kite design project, but not before our instructor, Ms Gwen Wagner, invited Professor Armstrong to traverse into yet another world, to give us a crash course in aerodynamics as related to kite flying.

PHOTO: The UC College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. It didn't look this weird back then.

If that sounds hard to believe, Armstrong would have been the first to agree with you. He was undoubtedly chosen as the first to set foot on the moon because, among other reasons, he was as understated a man as you could ever meet. Being world-famous had little effect on his demeanor, but explaining the principles of flight to a group of hippie artist types did manage to overwhelm him a bit. But he kept his head, and took it seriously, as seriously as such an unrealistic scenario could allow while drawing diagrams on a chalkboard.

That was the spring of the big tornado preceded by hailstones as big as baseballs. That was the kite design group where everybody in the group said later that I was completely useless, and in the years that followed, all but the most vehemently dismissive among them had dropped out of the program.

In the years that followed, and much closer to the present, I met two other famous Eagle Scouts, both of whom were nominated for cabinet positions in Washington at the start of 2017, and I was detailed to the Presidential Transition as a photographer. (That's another story for another day.) But the first of them was a man who preferred obscurity, and was chosen for greatness, in spite of it, perhaps because of it.

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VIDEO: Jonathan King appears on the UK's "Top Of The Pops" show in 1965 to sing "Everyone's Gone To The Moon." The show's host needed a haircut more than this guy.

Admit it, you thought I was going to talk about watching the moon walk on television, right? Well, of course I did, like everybody else. A local radio station, WSAI-AM, then at 1360kHz, spent the evening of the landing playing pop songs that mentioned the moon. It felt as if the whole world would never be the same again after one of us stepped beyond it.

And so it goes.