|Santa Croce, Florence|
The photo is of the main altar in Santa Croce, where Galileo and Michaelangelo are buried, and there is a memorial to Enrico Fermi as well. But you almost miss the cross amid all the beauty of the stained glass and frescoes.
This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 15 December 2015.
Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete: modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus: Dominus prope est. Nihil solliciti sitis: sed in omni oratione petitiones vestrae innotescant apud Deum.
Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say, rejoice! Let your kindness be known to all, for the Lord is near. Do not be anxious, but in all things, with prayer make your petitions known to God. — Entrance antiphon for the 3rd Sunday in Advent
Rejoice! Shout for joy! The readings on Sunday rang with strength and shimmered with joy. In case we missed it, St. Paul, repeats it. Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say, rejoice! I hear fragments of this call to joy everywhere in these last two weeks before Christmas — from the glittery displays in the stores to the houses draped in lights to the relentless cheerful tunes playing on the radio. Rejoice!
But there is a counter-melody threaded through the trumpets and festive choral anthems. Anxiety creeps in. When is the last date I can ship something to California to get there for Christmas? Have I submitted all the letters of recommendation students need? My father has fallen and is in the ICU. Will I need to go to fly to the West Coast? A friend is very ill; another’s family is fractured by the loss of a young father. How can I rejoice when the darkness seems to encroach from all sides?
I wonder if amid all the ringing bells and bright lights we miss the ways in which the Christmas story is one of dislocation, of Mary and Joseph — and surely many other refugees — on the road to fulfill the edict of an occupying force, of God infinite and immortal moving into flesh and time. How it is a story, too, of abandonment, of a people who wonder if they have been forsaken by their God, who promised them so much in Isaiah, of Mary, who bore God within her very self, left spent and emptied of God in a stable.
Monday was the feast of St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Carmelite monk and mystic who wrote “The Dark Night of the Soul,” a poetic and spiritual exploration of the difficulties that can afflict us on our journey to God. This commemoration always falls in Advent, pinned as it is to the day St. John died, December 14, 1591. Each time we celebrate it, I am struck by the contrast between the scouring darkness St. John experienced and the warmth and light so strongly associated with God’s coming among us at Advent — with its images of kindly innkeepers, shepherds and sparkling angelic hosts.
Yet it is just this juxtaposition of light and darkness, where lament plays a counterpoint to joy, that St. John of the Cross embraces: “O living flame of love, how tenderly you wound my soul in her profoundest core!” In his poem “Del nacimiento” (Of the birth), he writes of “God-in-the-manger” weeping, not for us, but in his own distress and confusion, even as humankind rejoices to be swept into the mystery of the Trinity through this incarnation.
The full chord that Christmas sounds for us may have as its top note bright joy, but the deeper, dark notes, are what shake us to our core. For in the end we are sustained, not by the songs of angels, but by the Body of Christ, given up for us.
Read St. John of the Cross' Del nacimiento (in Spanish and English).
H/T to my friend Cindy for this short piece on T.S. Eliot and John of the Cross, which quotes a bit of Eliot's East Coker.