Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Prayers today: Gates, lift up your heads! Stand erect, ancient doors, and let in the King of glory.

God our Father, you sent your Son to free mankind from the power of death. May we who celebrate the coming of Christ as man share more fully in his divine life, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Blessed Jacopone da Todi (d. 1306)

Jacomo, or James, was born a noble member of the Benedetti family in the northern Italian city of Todi. He became a successful lawyer and married a pious, generous lady named Vanna. His young wife took it upon herself to do penance for the worldly excesses of her husband. One day Vanna, at the insistence of Jacomo, attended a public tournament. She was sitting in the stands with the other noble ladies when the stands collapsed. Vanna was killed. Her shaken husband was even more disturbed when he realized that the penitential girdle she wore was for his sinfulness. On the spot, he vowed to radically change his life. He divided his possessions among the poor and entered the Third Order of St. Francis. Often dressed in penitential rags, he was mocked as a fool and called Jacopone, or "Crazy Jim," by his former associates. The name became dear to him. After 10 years of such humiliation, Jacopone asked to be a member of the Franciscan Order. Because of his reputation, his request was initially refused. He composed a beautiful poem on the vanities of the world, an act that eventually led to his admission into the Order in 1278. He continued to lead a life of strict penance, declining to be ordained a priest. Meanwhile he was writing popular hymns in the vernacular. Jacopone suddenly found himself a leader in a disturbing religious movement among the Franciscans. The Spirituals, as they were called, wanted a return to the strict poverty of Francis. They had on their side two cardinals of the Church and Pope Celestine V. These two cardinals, though, opposed Celestine’s successor, Boniface VIII. At the age of 68, Jacopone was excommunicated and imprisoned. Although he acknowledged his mistake, Jacopone was not absolved and released until Benedict XI became pope five years later. He had accepted his imprisonment as penance. He spent the final three years of his life more spiritual than ever, weeping "because Love is not loved." During this time he wrote the famous Latin hymn, Stabat Mater. On Christmas Eve in 1306 Jacopone felt that his end was near. He was in a convent of the Poor Clares with his friend, Blessed John of La Verna. Like Francis, Jacopone welcomed "Sister Death" with one of his favourite songs. It is said that he finished the song and died as the priest intoned the Gloria from the midnight Mass at Christmas. From the time of his death, Brother Jacopone has been venerated as a saint.

“Crazy Jim,” his contemporaries called Jacopone. We might well echo their taunt, for what else can you say about a man who broke into song in the midst of all his troubles? We still sing Jacopone’s saddest song, the Stabat Mater, but we Christians claim another song as our own, even when the daily headlines resound with discordant notes. Jacopone’s whole life rang our song out: “Alleluia!” May he inspire us to keep singing.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Luke (1.46-56)

And Mary said: My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants for ever, even as he said to our fathers. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.

Mighty God, and Mary His servant
(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

Throughout the Old Testament the great works of God are extolled and his chosen servants are held up for veneration. Before Abraham, Noah was “a good and blameless man in that age, for he walked with God.” He is set apart by God and preserved from the flood that sweeps away in judgment the sinners that cover the earth. A new covenant is established, but the sorry pattern of sin continues unabated, symbolized by the pride of the Tower of Babel. Abraham is called by God and is promised the divine blessing. He “went as the Lord directed” and proved his obedience and his faith. Following Abraham there are the Patriarchs, Moses, certain of the Judges such as Samson and Samuel, and Kings such as David and Hezekiah, the prophets such as Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and certain of the priests. They stand as examples for God’s chosen people, solemnly illustrating the supreme place God occupies in life, bearing witness to what he has done and will do. It is against this broad backdrop that we ought reflect on the words of joy uttered by the virgin Mary in today’s Gospel passage. She extols God and because of him she will be counted as blessed. She thinks of the story of God’s care for his people from generation to generation. He, God, is great. Her “soul” — the core of her entire self — proclaims his greatness (Greek: mega-lunei) and her “spirit” exults in him who saves her. God is her Saviour. If we set the inspired literature of the Hebrews against the literature of the ancient world, the two things which Mary extols in God are those which mark Yahweh off from the other gods of the peoples. He is great and he saves. No other deity compares in greatness with Yahweh. All others in their own way compete for power with other gods. Zeus and Jupiter are not unrivalled. They are restricted by the other gods of the pantheon. But Yahweh is simply great, great beyond compare. He is, as Mary humbly sings, the Mighty One who saves.

In her prayer Mary thinks of the history of God’s dealings with his people. “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.” We think of Yahweh sending Moses to Pharaoh to take his people out of slavery to the promised land. Pharaoh was proud of heart — indeed, the Scriptural icon of those who are proud before Yahweh — but he was scattered by the plagues and wonders with which Egypt was visited at the word of Moses. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” We think of Sennacherib who advanced against Hezekiah and Jerusalem, pouring scorn on the God of Hezekiah and Jerusalem. The prophet Isaiah predicted that the city would not be touched and that God would send him packing. “That night the angel of the Lord went forth and struck down one hundred and eighty five thousand men in the Assyrian camp... So Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, broke camp, and went back home to Nineveh” (2 Kings 19: 35-36). We think of the writing on the wall during the banquet of King Belshazzar, and Daniel’s solemn interpretation of it — so powerful an event that the expression, “the writing on the wall”, is now a synonym for a destruction that is certain to come. “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants for ever, even as he said to our fathers.” In all of this the virgin Mary is exulting in the Mighty One who saves. He shows his might in his saving mercy, rescuing and raising up those who are oppressed and suffering. “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” And Mary herself will be counted blessed for all generations — so she is the greatest instance of the power and the mercy of God. Her greatness, her blessedness, her shining and matchless height among God’s creatures is his merciful gift to one who is but his lowly servant. Mary the humble and lowly one, Mary the blessed one, blessed beyond compare and for all generations to come!

Let us read this precious passage of the Gospel which sums up so deftly the entire meaning of the Old Testament and its revelation of God and his saving ways. We could not do better than read the Scriptures with Mary’s words as their key constantly in mind. With her let us praise the might and mercy of God and count her as the blessed one for all generations. God is great. He is merciful. He saves. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death!

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