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On Holy Ground

In the comments field of my Christmas post, one of our regulars, Warren, lamented his annual holiday tangles and wrangles over religion: “This year, like all others … I learned that all the holy sites in Jerusalem and around Israel are most likely bogus, and that they were all determined by Constantine’s mother. (The location of the Sepulchre, the church of the nativity, etc).”

My response to Warren follows. I’m posting it here in case the recommendations are useful for others.

There are very good reasons to believe the sites we venerate are at or near the places where the events occurred.  We know — from pagan and Christian sources — that those first generations of Christians were willing to risk their lives for the memory of Christ. Can anyone seriously believe that those same people would be sloppy about keeping that memory? Remember, they lived in a culture that placed a premium on the accuracy of oral history. These particular memories would have been the most important, the most carefully passed on.

The literary sources are useful. The Gospels do concern themselves with details, topography, place names, and many of their geographic details are confirmed in non-Christian sources (Josephus, for example).

Archeologists, too, are willing to make the “positive” case for this or that site. Check out their testimony. Start with The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor. Also helpful is The Jerusalem Jesus Knew: An Archaeological Guide to the Gospels by John Wilkinson. I love the works of Bargil Pixner; and you might want to read Jesus and First-Century Christianity in Jerusalem, co-authored with Elizabeth McNamer — but all Pixner’s books are useful. Another reliable witness is William Dever, who is hardly a conventional believer, being an ex-Christian somewhat converted to an agnostic sort of Judaism; but he makes a good case for the accuracy of the biblical record. See his Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research. If you want to extend your archeological-historical studies further back, see On the Reliability of the Old Testament, by K. A. Kitchen.

These men are respected archeologists, published by reputable houses. They’re hardly credulous, but they’re willing to grant credence to the biblical authors and the religious traditions that hallow certain ruins and parcels of land. I think only a true bigot could dismiss the traditions out of hand after considering the witness of these scholars (and many more of their colleagues).

This is not to say there’s unanimity on the veracity of every identification of every site. Of course there’s not. But we should not be so eager to cast our ancestors as idiots.

Nevertheless, site identification is not a hill I’m willing to die on as a Christian apologist. For Muslims — as for Jews in antiquity — pilgrimage is something akin to our sacraments: something essential, a divine mandate. But it’s never been that way for Christians. Here we have no lasting city (Hebrews 13:14). For an excellent study of the Fathers’ ambivalence toward the holy sites, see Pilgrimage in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Antiquity: Seeing the Gods.

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The Senses of Christmas

Christmas could rightly be called the holiday of the senses.

It is the season of lights and tinsel, choirs and carols, the aroma of pine and roasting chestnuts. Christmas comes to us with sumptuous meals, hearty laughter, and kisses beneath the mistletoe. Christmas scenes — by the old masters and by modern advertisers — decorate the walls of museums, billboards on the roadside, and cards in the mailbox. For nearly 2,000 years, the world has marked the birth of Jesus Christ as its most festive jubilee. No other day of the year offers the world so many earthly pleasures.

But why? No pope or Church council ever declared that it should be so. Yet every year, Christmas comes onto the calendar like a sudden December wind, like the blinding sun reflected off new snow. It is a shock to the senses, to go from barren winter to the season of lights and feasting.

And so it should be, for the first Christmas — the day when Jesus Christ was born — was a shock to human history.

For millennia, humankind had lived and died, uncomprehending, in its sin, the miseries of this world inevitable and the joys few and fleeting. Then Christmas arrived, and even the calendar went mad. From that moment, all of history was cleft in two: before that day (B.C.), and after that day (A.D.). The world — with all its sights and sounds and aromas and embraces — was instantly transfigured. For the world’s redemption had begun the moment God took human flesh for His own, the moment God was born in a poor stable in Bethlehem.

The greatest Christian poem commemorates this moment when God definitively came to dwell on earth. St. John begins his Gospel by describing a God of awesome power, remote in space and transcending time: a Spirit, a Word:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him.

This is the God that even the pagan philosophers knew: the Prime Mover, the One, the Creator. Yet, precisely where the pagan philosophers stalled, John’s drama proceeded to a remarkable climax:

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

This was shocking news. From the distant heavens, from remotest time, God Himself had come in flesh to “pitch His tent” among His people. Yes, God is eternally the Word, but a word is elusive, and not everyone may grasp it. Now He is also a baby, and a baby may be picked up and held and embraced.

Of all the amazing and confounding truths of the Christian religion, there is none so outrageous as this: that the Word was made flesh, in a particular little town, in a stable filled with animals, on a certain day of the year. The Word was made flesh and changed everything. This makes Christmas the most shocking feast in the calendar.

And all the meaning of Christmas is summed up in this fact. God lived in a family the way we do. He shivered against the cold the way we do. The Word-made-flesh nursed at His mother’s breast like any other human baby. Suddenly, God was not a watchmaker, some remote mechanic who wound up the world and let it go. God was a baby, crying to be picked up.

Tradition tells us that John wrote the Prologue to his Gospel in a white heat of inspiration. His friends had asked him to set down the story of Jesus, so he asked them a favor in return: to fast and pray with him. When the fast was over, the Spirit came upon John, and he could not contain himself. The words poured out — perhaps the very words he had been trying to say all his long life, but had never quite managed to find before.

You can hear the astonishment in his voice when he tells us that the Word was made flesh. As he was writing, he must have felt that same thrill again, the thrill he felt when it first hit home that this Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, was the Anointed, the Son of God.

And that same astonishment carries over into his first epistle. According to tradition, John wrote that letter sixty-six years after the Ascension of Christ, but the amazement is still fresh in his voice. He still can hardly believe that “that which was from the beginning” is also that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

In the earliest days of the Church, Christmas was not one of the important feasts. Jesus’ life was still a living memory, and His extraordinary resurrection rightly occupied the central spot in the calendar. But as time went on, false teachers began to deny the fact of Jesus’ humanity. They claimed that Jesus’ body had been an elaborate disguise, that, in reality, God had never debased Himself by taking on human flesh. Later heretics denied also that Mary gave birth to the Word: instead, they said, she gave birth to a “vessel” into which the Word was later poured. Still other heretics believed that the Son was a subordinate being — divine, but not coeternal with God the Father.

All these heresies had one thing in common: an unwillingness to face the apparent foolishness of the Incarnation. Arius, the founder of the Arian heresy, was an eminently reasonable man. He denied the doctrine of the Trinity because, he said, three cannot be one; that’s elementary arithmetic. The infinite God cannot become finite man; that’s elementary philosophy. Therefore there could be no Incarnation.

Heretics like Arius wanted to spare God the unreasonable indignity of being corrupted by too close an association with humanity. It was the same problem the Pharisees could not get over: If this Jesus is so good, why does He associate with sinners and tax collectors? In fact, though the heretics would have insisted that they were defending the perfection of the Deity, they were actually denying the perfection of God’s love. Love, after all, can seem unreasonable. Anyone who values another as much as oneself seems entirely unreasonable.

It can hardly be coincidence that the celebration of the literal, historical birth of Jesus the carpenter’s son began to take on more importance just when the true faith was most dangerously beset by these flesh-denying errors. The scandalously human birth of the Son of God was the very thing that separated orthodoxy from heresy. Celebrating that Nativity committed the Church to a clear statement of principle.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

In the beginning, there was no universal agreement on the date of Christmas. The Church in Egypt at first placed the date of Christ’s birth in May or April. Others put it in March, and still others in any other month you care to name. It was also popular to combine the celebration of Christ’s birth with the celebration of the Epiphany, putting them both on January 6. But sometime in the 400s the date of the Feast of the Incarnation settled on December 25, and there it stayed.

There are at least three plausible theories to account for how Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25. No one of the theories excludes the others; all three could be correct.

The first theory is the simplest. An old story says that, in about the year 350, Pope Julius I looked up the date of Jesus’ birth in the census records. Certainly there is nothing outlandish in the idea of census records holding that information even three and a half centuries later. We know from Luke’s Gospel that Jesus was born during a census. The Romans, with their almost compulsive love of order, might well have kept those records forever in some bureaucratic hole in Rome.

The second theory has it that Christians, unable to stamp out a pagan midwinter celebration, simply took it over. Throughout history, people have celebrated the passing of the shortest day in the year, the solstice. When the days begin to lengthen again, it means that the death of winter will certainly pass, and the world will be reborn in spring.

The pagan origin of the date should not scandalize us. Indeed, many Christmas traditions have pagan origins. The Christmas tree, for example, has no obvious connection with the birth of Jesus, but certainly makes sense as a pagan midwinter rite: By sympathetic magic, we bring back the dormant spirit of vegetation when we bring an evergreen tree — still living when everything around it is dead — back from the forest. And yet it is an appropriate symbol for Christians, too. The evergreen tree is an obvious metaphor for the hope of new life that Christ brought us.

Again, the lights we string everywhere for Christmas may be a survival of an old heathen rite — once again, a kind of sympathetic magic, lighting fires to bring the dying sun back to life. But light has always been a favorite Christian symbol, too.

We know that the early Church frequently took advantage of local beliefs or customs to spread the Gospel. Paul himself founded one of his most famous orations on the altar to an unknown god in Athens. “What therefore you worship, without knowing it,” he told the gawking Athenians, “that I preach to you.” (Acts 17:23.) It would be very much in the spirit of Paul for the Church to develop a Christian interpretation of a beloved heathen festival, explaining to eager converts that they were really worshipping not the light, but the Light.

The third theory to account for the specific date December 25 is that it corresponded with the early Church’s notion of Jesus’ perfect life. Tradition had it that Jesus died on March 25. In order for His life to be appealingly perfect, the theologians reasoned, He must also have been conceived on March 25, then born exactly nine months later.

The idea of Jesus’ life having a kind of aesthetic perfection must have been satisfying to an age still under the spell of Neoplatonist philosophy. It would have satisfied the intellect, and that Roman passion for order, as much as the continuation of the beloved midwinter festival satisfied the sentiments.

All of these theories could be true. One can imagine, for example, the Pope discovering the date in census records, and the Church taking advantage of its happy correspondence with the date of a favorite pagan festival, even as the more philosophical Christians capitalized on its appealing symmetry with the traditional date of Jesus’ death. As always, Christians would have reached out to the nations in ways the nations were prepared to hear. By giving a Christian interpretation to a favorite local custom or an appealing philosophical idea, the Church gave the newly converted a way of seeing the story of the Incarnation in terms they could understand.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

As the festival spread throughout the newly Christianized nations of Europe and the East, it gathered more old pagan customs and gave them new Christian interpretations. Everywhere Christmas went, it must have seemed new but somehow familiar to newly converted pagans. Perhaps that very familiarity made it the most beloved feast in the calendar.

At any rate, by about 1100, Christmas had become the most important celebration of the year. Throughout the high Middle Ages, Christmas was celebrated everywhere with tremendous spectacles and rejoicing. The people sang their favorite carols; psychedelic processions wound noisily through the narrow streets of medieval cities; and everywhere there was the heavenly aroma of Christmas cooking.

With the Protestant Reformation, however, came changes on the cultural scene. In their zealous rage against any perceived abuses in the Church, many of the Reformers targeted Christmas as nothing more than a mishmash of heathen festivals. In a sense, of course, they were correct: many of the traditions did come from pagan roots. But the anti-Christmas factions judged by the stem when they ought to have judged by the fruit.

When the Puritans took over in England, they banned Christmas outright. Shops were ordered to stay open. Anyone caught with a mince pie was in serious trouble. All the greenery, Yule logs, plum puddings, and carols that make up a traditional English Christmas were (the Puritans said) nothing but heathen idolatry, and heathen idolatry must be suppressed. There were stubborn pockets of resistance — some people were even willing to die for Christmas, so strong was the popular attachment to the traditional holiday — but the Puritans prevailed, though only for a while.

To counteract all that heathen wallowing in sensory pleasures, the Puritans decreed that Christmas would be a day of fasting. Somehow that tradition never caught on. It would be easy to say that the fast never caught on because of human weakness — people, after all, prefer feasting to fasting almost as naturally as they prefer joy to sorrow. But Lent never dropped out of the calendar from lack of demand. Good Christians are willing to endure self-denial when it seems appropriate. It just does not seem appropriate for Christmas.

What the Puritans could not understand, and what many good people still fail to understand, is that there is no contradiction between worshipping God and enjoying God’s creation. It is no shame to enjoy the good things God has given us. Jesus’ first recorded miracle was turning water into wine — and not just ordinary wine, St. John is careful to point out that this was the good stuff. Apparently, the Son of Man had, in the most human and fleshly sense, good taste.

Some misguided Christians, like the Puritans, are ashamed to sully the affairs of faith with earthly enjoyment. But the miracle of Christ’s birth is that it was earthly. The Word became flesh — real, unmistakably earthly flesh. “Flesh,” said St. Athanasius, the heroic champion of orthodoxy when the clouds of heresy seemed blackest, “did not diminish the glory of the Word; far be the thought. On the contrary, it was glorified by Him.”

Some Church Fathers called Christmas the Feast of the Incarnation.

Incarnation comes from a Latin word that means “enfleshment.” What sounds to English-speakers like a rarefied theological term is really just a statement of fact: God took on flesh. When that happened, flesh itself became something holy, something to be celebrated with paintings and statues and Christmas cards.

Yet in the eighth century, a faction arose in the Church calling themselves “Iconoclasts,” Greek for “picture-smashers.” The iconoclasts tried to “purify” and “spiritualize” Christian life by obliterating all artistic representations of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. They seized and destroyed most of the religious images in the Eastern Roman Empire, and they cut off the hands of those Christians who would not part with their icons. God, they said, could not be represented in a picture; any attempt to do so was rank idolatry. But this is how St. John of Damascus answered them: “In former times, God, being without form or body, could in no way be represented. But today, since God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I can represent what is visible in God. I do not worship matter, but worship the creator of matter Who became matter for my sake . . . and Who, through matter, accomplished my salvation.”

In other words, the Incarnation makes art, too, a holy thing, just as it made the body a holy thing. The artists who have painted the Nativity throughout the centuries were not creating idols. Their visible representations are hymns of praise to the invisible God made visible.

Look at any of the classic Nativity paintings and marvel at the care taken with the tiniest details. Every animal in the stable is an individual creature; every straw in the manger seems to be drawn with infinite care. Of all the biblical scenes artists have loved to paint for centuries, the Nativity is the one that seems to provoke the most thorough delight in the simple pleasure of drawing things. It seems as if God is in every detail.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Everyone’s favorite Christmas story is the one in Luke’s Gospel. What makes it so beloved is the familiarity of it all. Luke, who seems to have been writing for a gentile audience, strives to place Jesus exactly in history and geography. His point is that the birth of the Christ is not a metaphor or parable (something a sophisticated Mediterranean audience, accustomed to hearing the philosophers and sophists reinterpret classical mythology allegorically, would easily be tempted to suppose). It was a real event in a real place, related in a precisely knowable way to the other real events of recent history.

Having established the exact time and place, Luke goes on to give us, with a professional historian’s skill, exactly the details we need to bring home the earthly reality of Jesus’ birth. We learn how Joseph and Mary felt when they found there was no room at the inn, and how grateful they were for even the scant shelter of a stable — not because Luke tells us how they felt, but because he gives us just enough detail to put us right there with them, and we can feel it for ourselves. Probably no one could ever make a movie out of those events that would really convince us: We were there, we know what it was like, and whatever we saw on the screen or on the stage would never seem half so real.

The other Gospel writers do not provide the same details. They have their own points to make, each one as valuable as Luke’s — but not so immediately appealing to our sentimental side.

Mark is the only one who has nothing to say about Jesus’ birth. His compact and economical narrative begins with John the Baptist and wastes no time getting Jesus baptized by him.

Matthew tells us only that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, then skips straight to the Wise Men. Matthew and Luke seem to have been writing for different audiences: Matthew for people who had heard of or seen Jesus the man and needed to know that He was also Jesus the Christ, and Luke for people who had heard of Jesus the Christ and needed to be told that He was also Jesus the man.

And then there is John. He actually tells the same story as Luke, but in words so different that at first we do not recognize the story at all. We could almost say that, where Luke saw the events from earth’s point of view, John saw them from heaven’s. Luke gives us the details that let us see the earthliness of the Incarnation; John gives us the poetry that lets us see the miracle of it all.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

It is important to have John’s divine words in mind when we read the story in Luke, because the Incarnation was not a one-time event that ended on the Cross or with the Ascension. Jesus Christ came into the world in a particular place at a particular time, but He established a Church that would be His body in the world. The gloriously diverse congregation of believers who inhabit every corner of our planet — they are Christ’s body. If you want to know what Jesus looks like, go to church and look around you.

Even more, we encounter the Lord in the flesh in the Holy Eucharist. “For My flesh is real food,” He said, “and My blood real drink.” The Incarnation is not an abstract principle — it is a miraculous concrete fact every day of our lives. It didn’t just happen two thousand years ago. It happened today.

The “incarnational principle” — that embodiment of love — is present in all the sacramental realities Jesus gave us. It is not simply for the sake of weak human understandings that all the sacraments are celebrated with physical signs. God the Son made the physical sacred.

In the Holy Eucharist itself, we see the nourishment for our spirits expressed in the most elementary form of nourishment for the body. The eternal God appears to us in the very temporal form of bread and wine. “This is My body, broken for you,” Our Lord told us. “This is My blood, shed for you.” As often as we celebrate the Eucharist, we are roused to remember that Jesus the Son of God had real flesh to break and real blood to shed.

That fact is what the Feast of the Incarnation celebrates, and it is what makes enjoying the pleasures of the senses feel so appropriate for Christmas. Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus of Nazareth healed the sick and fed the hungry. He loved us not just enough to take us with Him into paradise, but to wish us every happiness while we still live here on Earth. And the only thing He asked us to do in return was to love Him, and to love others as much as He loved us.

You can still see traces of that Christian love in the ancient and beautiful custom of giving Christmas presents. There is more than a little irony in the fact that today’s manic rush to buy and sell Christmas exists only because we have managed to pervert the beautiful Christian urge to give. That perversion is the very sin that Jesus Himself condemned most angrily when He drove the moneychangers out of the Temple, the only sin that could have driven Him to use a whip on the sinners. What does Jesus think when he sees our “Sparkle Season,” the modern midwinter festival of greed? Perhaps (for Jesus is more perfectly forgiving than we could ever be) He sees the good in us, and the earnest desire many of us have to make others happy, and forgives us our excesses. We should pray that it might be so.

But we should not be ashamed to enjoy the beautiful traditions of Christmas, the delights of the senses that go naturally with the season. Eat, drink, sing, laugh, dance, come in before His presence with exceeding great joy. Why, after all, do we have bodies?

“Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day.”

This is what Jesus taught us: We have bodies so that we can use them to worship God, as Jesus of Nazareth did. We have bodies so that we can use them to serve others, as Jesus of Nazareth did. We have bodies so that we can bring comfort and consolation and healing, as Jesus of Nazareth did. We have bodies for glory’s sake.

And Christmas is full of that glory. The Gloria, the song of Christmas, comes to us from the Christmas Eve mass of the ancient Church. The angels sang it when they announced Christ’s birth: Glory to God in the highest! What was so glorious? This Jesus was born to a poor working family in a drafty stable filled with smelly animals. And that is precisely what was so glorious. There was nothing idealized about Jesus’ birth. The Son of God was born in an absolutely ordinary way. The first people to hear of the miracle were certain poor shepherds — not the great and mighty Emperor Augustus in his palace at Rome, not even that tin-plated despot Herod. That is the wonder of the Word-made-flesh: the Word was truly made one of us.

The Christmas story is the story of how the flesh became holy, the body was sanctified, and simple earthly joys became hymns of praise to God. Thus Christmas is a feast for the eyes, the ears, and all the senses. We love to hear the story over and over, and we always will love it so long as a scrap of humanity remains in us.

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Primal Howell

Here’s a Christmas present for you. News comes from CHResources — the publishing arm of Marcus Grodi’s Coming Home Network — of an expanded first volume of Dr. Kenneth Howell’s series on the Apostolic Fathers. I blogged at midyear about his Ignatius of Antioch. Now, the Ignatian material is combined in one volume with Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians and his acta, the Martyrdom of Polycarp. Here’s the publisher blurb:

Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna were two of the greatest leaders of Christianity in the first half of the second century.  Both suffered martyrdom: Ignatius in Rome during the reign of Trajan, and Polycarp in Smyrna some time in the mid-century.  The letters of Ignatius advance the teachings of Christ and the apostles on such important subjects as church unity, the Eucharist, and the governmental structure of the church.  The Martyrdom of Polycarp represents one of the earliest and most inspiring accounts of a Christian martyr that we possess.  Their combined writings provide a unique window on the faith, life and practice of Christians in the second century.  Careful reading of these writings demonstrates the unique place that the early fathers of the church hold in establishing the foundations of historic Christianity.  Their relevance for contemporary ecumenical discussions is beyond dispute.

Kenneth J. Howell is a seasoned scholar of ancient Greek whose translations of Ignatius and Polycarp are accurate, vivid, and illuminating. His commentary in the accompanying notes on each document draws out the connections between Ignatius, Polycarp, and the New Testament. The six introductory essays in this book explain the context and content of these eastern fathers in language accessible to moderns.

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Recipes of the Fathers

OK, so that’s overstating it. But I’m very much impressed by my wife’s recent purchase, Recipes For Life, A Catholic Family Cookbook. Who knew that the abstemious ascetics of the ancient Church could inspire such culinary delights? The book marks the feast of the Great Cappadocian, for example, with “St. Basil’s Vegetable Cheese Squares.” The recipe is preceded by a portrait of the saint and a short bio, questions for consideration in prayer, and then it’s followed by an excerpt from Basil’s Morals.

And it gets even better. At the beginning of the book is a list of “Trusted Authors,” and Yours Truly is second. Of course, it’s an alphabetical list. So I’d even beat Basil, if he were contemporary.

I’ve got to talk my daughter — the house baker — into making “Perpetua and Felicity’s Berry Puff.” Or should I start with “St. Jerome’s Lion Claws”?

I know my baker will like the book, because it’s also stocked with Bil Keane cartoons, and she’s a fan.


The publisher’s selling it as a fundraiser. Here’s a summary from the website:

† Over 300 tried and true recipes

† 80 saint biographies with motivational tips to help you imitate the saint coupled with a recipe to have during your once a week “Saint’s Night”

† “Family Circus” Dividers

† Eucharistic quotes sprinkled throughout

† Suggestions on how to become a saint, getting connected to the Catholic world, prayers, conversion table for metric measurements  and much more

A great fund raiser for those wanting to spread the Gospel through holy men and women AND make money for their organization.

There is no work on your part.  No collecting recipes, taking pictures, making deadlines…no hassles! Just order these cookbooks and sell them.

Order as little as 50 at wholesale prices.

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Rich and Noble

LayWitness, the magazine that used to run my regular column on the Fathers, recently published my memoir (of sorts) about my father and grandfather. (They also have my old patristic columns archived on their site.)


Rich and Noble:

Wisdom from a Sicilian-American Ghetto

Calogero Aquilina, my grandfather, arrived on America’s shores on April 24, 1909. He had made the long voyage by sea from Caltanisetta, Sicily, on the S.S. Finland.

He crossed the Atlantic in overcrowded steerage. And why? For the great privilege of working in the coal mines. Such jobs were plentiful. They were also dangerous and dirty — long hours for poverty wages. They were jobs that American citizens were not eager to fill. So Calogero landed at Ellis Island, like hundreds of thousands of others, and found immediate employment.

Those were the years before the unions made their impact. The air in the mines was damp, dusty, and barely breathable. The corridors were infested with rats.

At the end of the day, the miners joined their families in one-room houses. They cooked and they ate in the place where they slept.

Calogero worked in the mines for a solid decade before the dust took over his lungs and turned them black …

The story gets happier. Read on.

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St. Menas the Martyr and Healer

Some time ago, I wrote about the fourth-century martyr St. Menas — and about his shrine, which some folks have called “The Lourdes of the Ancient World.” Al Ahram has a big feature on archeology at Abu Mina:

THE MARBLE TOWN OF MAR MINA: Discovered by Kaufmann in 1905, the town of Mar Mina is located nearly 50km south of Alexandria, halfway to Wadi Al-Natrun. It sits right on the old caravan road linking Alexandria to Siwa. The town covers an area of 40,000 square metres or more. Aside from the markets, the houses, the monasteries, and assorted chapels, the town’s main church has attracted ample praise from ancient historians. One chronicler called it “the greatest Egyptian church”. Another described it the “Acropolis of Christendom”.

The church began with a small tomb for St Menas in 309. Most probably, a small chapel was created over the tomb in the early fourth century. The first church built on the site perhaps dates to the mid- fourth century. Inside the church, there is a marble staircase leading to the crypt that contains the saint’s relics and icon. The crypt is connected to a small gallery with a dome that may have once been ornamented with golden mosaic.

When the church became too small for the congregation, a larger church was built on its eastern side. This happened in the early years of the fifth century by orders of Emperor Arcadius (395-408). The emperor had the church decorated with expensive marble, mosaics, and carvings. The church had three aisles separated by 56 columns; the aisles were 60 metres in length and 16 in width. The sockets of the columns can still be seen in the church, and some of the capitals and shafts are still scattered around the site. Parts of the columns are currently on display in Frankfurt and the Alexandria Graeco-Roman Museum.

The fame of the site is attributed to the healing miracles associated with the nearby springs. In Egypt, St Menas is often referred to as the agaybi or miracle-worker. Archaeologists working on the site have found thousands of flasks stamped with the saint’s liking. Pilgrims to the site used to carry the flasks of what they considered holy water back home for their sick relatives. The town had a water network that took water from the holy spring to various basins, cisterns, baths, and hostels around the site.

The monastery situated north of the church is perhaps the largest in early Christianity. Close to the town, farmers grew wine, fruit, and other crops to supply the vibrant town. But the town may not have survived past the ninth century.

According to Anba Saweris Ibn Al-Moqaffa, who was bishop of Ashmunin in the second half of the 10th century, the Abbasid Caliph Al-Motawakkel (846-861) sent an emissary to Egypt to bring marble columns and slabs for Baghdad buildings. The emissary, it is said, confiscated much of the church’s wealth of marble columns and tiles.

Abu Al-Makarem, a 13th-century chronicler, says that the Mar Mina Church in Mariout was still standing in his time. The last mention of the church, however, was in the Middle Ages…

There’s lots more — a survey of the hagiography, illustration … Check it out.
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In Today’s Mail …

… came Christianity in the Greco-Roman World: A Narrative Introduction by Moyer V. Hubbard. I’ve been skipping around in it between periods of futile snow-shoveling, and it seems to be great fun. He’s exploring work, education, family, and other social realities of the world of early Christianity. He begins each section with a fictional vignette, then unpacks the details by taking us through the archeological and documentary record. There are plenty of great illustrative quotes, and really good bad quotes. I love this sort of book. I’m sure I’ll post more from it as I read more.

Unless I die shoveling, of course. Didn’t someone complain somewhere about being too old to dig?

Hubbard teaches NT language and literature at Talbot School of Theology. The book is from Hendrickson, which has published some mighty patristic titles in recent years. The format and price make it a good choice for an undergrad textbook. Young readers will, I think, enjoy his vignettes, which provide good imaginative entries into an alien world. Even students most resistant to learning are likely to stay awake for Hubbard’s description of the activity at the baths.

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Smart Alex

Alex Basile is a regular visitor to these pages. He’s also a teacher of high-school religion.

Now he’s written two remarkable little books that are great for introducing people to Christianity. One’s an introduction to belief, called Finding Faith in a Godless World: A Catholic Path to God. The other’s an introduction to spirituality — prayer and Christian living — titled Lessons From the Master: Living Like Jesus.

Alex is well acquainted with the great masters from the tradition, so you’ll find the familiar Fathers in his pages.

These are good books to buy by the crate for handing out to inquirers. Keep some in your drawer at work, some in the automobile glove compartment, some in the briefcase, one in the back pocket. And renew the face of the earth.
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Gold in them thar monasteries!

Out of Egypt comes word of a very exciting discovery. The office of Zahi Hawass blogs it with great photos.

A mission from the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of Warsaw University unearthed a decorated clay vessel from a room in a monastic building at the Deir Malak Gubrail monastery in Naqlun, a site in the Fayum.

The vessel is of Aswan production and contained a hoard of coins, Farouk Hosni, Egypt’s Minister of Culture, announced today.

Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), said that the hoard consists of 18 gold coins and 62 fragments of coins, all of them provisionally dated to the Abbasid period (AD 750-1258). Under the charred remains of a collapsed wall, archaeologists also uncovered a chandelier and a well-preserved oil lamp, both made of bronze.

Wlodzimierz Godlewski, the head of the Polish mission, said that the monastic complex of Naqlun was built in the early 6th century AD. The area excavated this season dated to the 7th century AD, and was destroyed by a massive fire around the end of the 8th or the beginning of the 9th century AD.

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What’s in the Health Care Bill?

Dr. Douglas Lowry is a friend of mine. A retired Franciscan University business prof, he now develops internet search tools. Doug wants us all to become better informed about the contents of the health-care plan that’s now before the U.S. Senate. So he’s developed a free tool to search the entire bill.

To search the U.S. Senate Health Care Bill, go to:

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‘Doggone Practical’

Pat Gohn has posted a kind review of my book Take Five: Meditations with Pope Benedict XVI. Here’s a snip:

Take Five really is a page-a-day devotional worthy of the name.  You get to meditate on Benedict’s words, learn a scripture verse that relates to the subject matter, and just in case you miss the point on those things, each day’s lesson has a few questions to help you go deeper.  Finally, there’s a short thought for the day to carry with you and apply to daily life. It’s doggone practical, down to earth, and just what so many of us can use as we long to grow in the spiritual life.

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Justin Case

I just received a book that looks fascinating: The Case for Christianity:  St Justin Martyr’s Arguments for Religious Liberty and Judicial Justice, by Robert M. Haddad. It arrived by air mail from Australia. I’m not finding copies for sale yet in the States. Here’s a bit from the preface:

Why is reading about St Justin of Neapolis, a saint and martyr of the second century AD, important for Christians of the twenty-first century?

St Justin lived during times similar to our own in many ways. Rome was the dominant world power and appeared for all intents and purposes unassailable. Economically, militarily and geographically Rome was at its height. Yet, it was beset by a number of growing problems––moral decay, family breakdown, falling birth rates, just to name a few. Religiously, Rome was conservative, yet eastern religions and mystery cults were spreading westwards and gaining many adherents. Fidelity to the gods was seen as essential to Rome’s continued prosperity and survival. Failure to render the gods their due threatened to bring down their wrath and despoil the empire.

Hence, the problem of the Christians. They refused to give any acknowledgement to the Graeco-Roman pantheon, and thus were considered as dangerous and impious atheists. For Rome’s survival, they therefore needed to be eliminated. In their efforts to destroy Christianity the Roman judicial procedure was arbitrary and ruthless. All that was needed for summary execution was the admission of bearing the Christian name and refusing to sacrifice to the Graeco-Roman gods.

St Justin’s efforts were urgent and heroic. He petitioned the very authority that persecuted Christians with a series of arguments pleading for judicial justice and religious liberty. His arguments appealed to the nobler sense in Romans, as well as to common sense. At the same time they contained an ‘evangelistic edge’ that sought his readers’ conversion to Christianity. This spirit of evangelism is very pronounced in St Justin’s other great work, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew.

In a number of respects the plight of second century Christians reflects the suffering of Christians in various modern-day contexts. St Justin’s arguments are, therefore, of a nature that can be appreciated by many a modern reader and should be of interest and relevance to Christians deprived of religious liberty today. St Justin’s struggle also reminds us that we in the West who enjoy religious freedom should never take it for granted.

I think I know what I’ll be reading during my Christmas travels.
Robert Haddad teaches religion and history at St. Charbel’s College in  Punchbowl. He has also done stints at the University of Sydney and the Centre for Thomistic Studies, all Down Under. He is director of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine for the Archdiocese of Sydney and lectures in Scripture and Church part-time at the University of Notre Dame, Australia.
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Pure Gold

Not long ago, I mentioned a handful of modern English poems about the Fathers and asked if anyone knew others. Of course, Maureen of Aliens in This World knew enough to fill an anthology and, over the months, has filled the combox with titles. Now she has herself produced a Rime of the Ancient Preacher, in Goldtongue: A Patristic Filk, sung to the tune of Goldfinger. (I find that it works as a rap as well.) It’s about John Chrysostom, of course, whose moniker means “Golden Mouth.” The rhyming is explosive: “For the Golden Horn’s lord knows his hyssop / Is a kiss-up’s death / From Bishop Goldtongue”

Maureen also manages the free audio-book site, Maria Lectrix, which now has 394 patristic titles!

I’m a fan. If you’re still using paper, though, you should read J.N.D. Kelly’s Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom-Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop.