Prayer for Christian Unity

For more than a century Christians have fostered a week of prayer (January 18-25) for the peace and harmony that responds in an ever deepening way to the prayer of Jesus. “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:20-21, New American Bible).

This year the texts for use each day were prepared by Christians of Malta. Appropriately they draw upon the experience of St. Paul whose voyage from Caesarea to Rome was interrupted by shipwreck near Malta. Fittingly, the document quotes the statement, “The natives showed us extraordinary hospitality” (Acts 28:2, New American Bible). The various dimensions of hospitality are explored during the meditations and prayers for each day.

The suggestions for each day of the week of prayer are available on the website of the Friars of Atonement at

Many years ago, in collaboration with leaders of the Jewish community, the Bishops of Italy promoted a “Day of Judaism” for January 17th each year, with a theme rooted in the Sacred Scriptures. This has been followed, with variations by the Bishops of Poland, Austria and other European countries. Over the decades there has been an enriching exchange among scholars of the Jewish community with Christians. The “Day of Judaism” complements these important initiatives with educational themes that are intended to reach parishioners in the Catholic churches of these nations. May both types of experience be multiplied!  In the meantime Christians are challenged to deepen and broaden their search to explore the roots of Christianity in its Jewish matrix.

Third Sunday of Advent: Custody of the Senses

Saint Augustine of Hippo by Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510)

Among the themes from the prophet Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11 in the Scripture readings for this Sunday is the ministry of healing as part of Messianic hope expressed in the ministry of Jesus. In my homily I touched on the ways that the Christian tradition has extended the work of Jesus throughout the ages and in virtually all parts of the world. Think of the hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and programs for people who are disabled as an extension of the healing hand of Jesus over the centuries. This present reflection develops another challenge of the Gospel for our time.

We very carefully strive to care physically for our five senses, especially sight and hearing. The Hebrew idiom protect “the pupil of the eye” (mistranslated by the phrase “the apple of the eye”) expresses how God protects his people from danger (see Zachariah 2:8, Revised Standard Version; 2:12 New American Bible).

The urgent moral and spiritual challenge to which I draw attention is to examine the way we use our senses, especially sight and hearing. These instruments of all that we learn should be guarded so that we avoid the near occasions of sin. I’m sure that parents are guiding their children in regard to the discipline that must be exercised so that their eyes and ears are not overwhelmed through exploitation by wicked merchants of immorality.  It seems that great advances in communication over recent years are being exploited much more rapidly than legal measures are enacted to preserve children from influences that attack our human dignity and that of the most vulnerable among us.  Parenthood has always been challenging, but now we need to be even more alert to dangers that may intrude surreptitiously into our homes or other places where children have access to the internet. May the Holy Family protect us!

As part of a beautiful prayer, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) placed the five senses in the context of the way God brought him to faith:

You were with me, but I was not with you…You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for
you.  I have tasted you; now I hunger and thirst for more.  You touched me, and I burn for your peace. (Confessions, Book VII. 10.27)

The Book of Life (Exodus 32:33)

Robert W. Service circa 1905

Robert W. Service (1874-1958) was an Englishman who wandered widely and penned rollicking ballads of the Yukon gold rush days and poignant poems of the trenches of the First World War. He never claimed to be a poet. “I’m a rhymer,” he said, and yet his stories give evidence of a solid education and, at times, hints of his Christian faith

In May 1914 he described the beginning of each day as a clean page in the Book of Life. What we make of any given day will be seen on Judgment Day. The second stanza expresses the desire to re-write certain pages, and the third is a prayer for divine guidance so that his bearing reflects God’s image so that every day may be golden.

Another day of toil and strife,
Another page so white,
Within that fateful Log of Life
That I and all must write;
Another page without a stain
To make of as I may,
That done, I shall not see again
Until the Judgment Day.

Ah, could I, could I backward turn
The pages of that Book,
How often would I blench and burn!
How often loathe to look!
What pages would be meanly scrolled;
What smeared as if with mud;
A few, maybe, might gleam like gold,
Some scarlet seem as blood.

O Record grave, God guide my hand
And make me worthy be,
Since what I write to-day shall stand
To all eternity;
Aye, teach me, Lord of Life, I pray,
As I salute the sun,
To bear myself that every day
May be a Golden One.

Collected Poems of Robert Service (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1921) p. 454

Yom Kippur and Christian Liturgy

During a discussion among medievalists on prayer, I mentioned the ember days in the Church’s liturgy. Middle-aged participants asked: “What are ember days?”

My friend Frank Henderson and I gave some attention to the topic in “Jews and Judaism in the Medieval Latin Liturgy” (see p. 191-92).

In the proceedings of a conference The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, edited by Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra offers a wide-ranging study, “Whose Fast Is It? The Ember Day of September and Yom Kippur” (pp. 259-82 with charts of the Biblical readings in the Roman rite). He introduces his essay with a quotation from Pope St. Leo I (the Great), who reigned from A.D. 440-461:

Confidently encouraging you with fatherly counsels, dearly beloved, we preach the fast dedicated in the seventh month to the exercises of common devotion, sure that what was first the Jewish fast will become Christian by your observance. (Sermon 90:1)

Did this fast merely recall Zechariah’s mention of four times of fasting (7:5; 8:18-19), developing independently of contemporary Jewish practices in Rome?  Dr. Ben Ezra responds:

Particularly in light of Leo’s familiarity with contemporary Judaism and his references to the fast as part of the Jewish heritage of the church, the theory of a completely independent development of these Christian and Jewish readings seems highly unlikely. Competition with and influence from the Jewish Yom Kippur plausibly explains the dominance of Old Testament readings and the focus on repentance and propitiation.

Because detailed sources for Jewish practices in Rome in the fifth century are not available, Dr. Ben Ezra’s conclusion is tentative, but it seems that non-polemical contacts allowed for Christians in Rome to learn from and adapt the Jewish practices of fasting. In the modern period we can learn from each other, and Christians should learn from the Jewish background to Matthew 5:1-18 how prayer, fasting and alms-giving reinforce each other.

Hunger as a Challenge for All

A farmer at work in Kenya’s Mount Kenya region. Pic by Neil Palmer (CIAT).

The specter of starvation must be a horror beyond the imagination of those who are assured of ample food each day. We cannot be ignorant of this dimension of the burdens caused by poverty in so many parts of the world. Organizations such as Catholic Relief Services  describe the urgent needs of so many in various parts of the world. The current and ongoing challenge was presented by Pope Francis in his Message for the World Food Day 2018.

The prophet Amos presented an even graver situation for the people of ancient Israel:

Yes, days are coming, says the Lord God
When I will send famine upon the land:
Not a famine of bread, or thirst for water,
But for hearing the word of the Lord.
Then shall they wander from sea to sea
And rove from the north to the east
In search of the word of the Lord,
But they shall not find it. (Amos 8:11-12)

The Sacred Scriptures provide spiritual nourishment in abundance for people of faith.  Besides the Word of God as the foundation of the Church’s prayer, the Divine Office in English translation offers poetry and prose that manifest the way God’s Word is integrated into the lives of the faithful. Besides the classical poems of Latin and Greek, we savor how the English language is a vehicle of prayer. On Wednesday evening of the First Week of the four week cycle instituted after the Second Vatican Council, the introductory hymn reads:

O Father, whose creating hand
Brings harvest from the fruitful land,
Your providence we gladly own,
And bring our hymns before your throne
To praise you for the living Bread
On which our lives are daily fed.

O Lord, who in the desert fed
The hungry thousands in their need,
Where want and famine still abound
Let your relieving love be found,
And in your name may we supply
Your hungry children when they cry.

O Spirit, your revealing light
Has led our questing souls aright;
Source of our science, you have taught
The marvels human minds have wrought,
So that the barren deserts yield
The bounty by your love revealed.

From the Christian perspective, the ultimate human vocation is to give adoration and praise to God the Father through the Son and in the unity effected by the Holy Spirit.  We “own” or acknowledge that divine providence is the continuation of the divine act of creation. For Christians the food that sustains our bodily life prepares us for the Bread of Life (see John 6:48-58), the medicine of immortality.

The miracles of Jesus multiplying loaves and fish provide an example for his followers to act in his Name to attend to the hungry, especially among children, in our time. Our feeble efforts are placed within the context of prayer because it is God’s mercy that brings a solution to people’s true needs.

The Holy Spirit guides both the prayers of petition and the deeds of the faithful. “Source of our science” reminds us of Hannah’s hymn (1 Samuel 2:3) where the phrase “Deus scientiarum Dominus (An all-knowing God is the LORD)” became the motto of the University of Ottawa. The unifying spirit of all Christian universities should be expressed in the ordering of all knowledge to the service of our neighbor as the expression of a theocentric vision. May the human quest for knowledge be guided by the divine gift of wisdom so that our choices may bring a yield that truly serves human needs while respecting the way in which all creation is in the service of God. “For the elements, in variable harmony among themselves, like the strings of the harp, produce new melody, while the flow of music steadily persists” (Wisdom of Solomon 19:18).

The hymn’s text written by the Methodist Donald Wynn Hughes (1911-1967), the Headmaster of Rydal School in Wales, evokes at the closing of a day the sentiments of prayer guiding a life of service. It is sung to music by Erik Routley (1917 – 1982).

The O Antiphons at Vespers

As we enter the seasons of the Church’s life serving God and neighbor, we can examine riches of the past in specific prayers, in this case the antiphons before and after the Marian canticle (Luke 1:46-55) of Vespers (Evening Prayer) from December 17-23.

These hymnic texts incorporate phrases and themes of the Jewish Scriptures into the Church’s expression of hope in preparing for the feast of the Nativity of Jesus. Because these phrases have been taken out of context, we are reminded of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation about the Old Testament that “these books, divinely inspired, preserve a lasting value” (Dei Verbum 15). “God, the inspirer and author of the books of both Testaments, in his wisdom has so brought it about that the New should be hidden in the Old and that the Old should be made manifest in the New” (16). As we admire the impressive knowledge of the hymn writer, we might explore more deeply the images and allusions incorporated into the prayers celebrating the wonderful surprises that Christian faith celebrates as we contemplate the message that frames the hymn of Mary (Luke 1:46-55).

The Divine Office, with recitation of the Psalms over seven “hours” (see Psalm 119:164), complemented the Sacraments in the daily life of monks and religious women. Now many lay people use the Morning and Evening Prayer as part of their daily devotions.

The prayers in St. Luke’s Infancy Narrative became the Gospel passages for Lauds (Morning Prayer), Vespers (Evening Prayer) and Compline (Night Prayer) each day. These prayers are attributed to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist (Luke 1:68-79), the Blessed Virgin (Luke 1:46-55) and Simeon (Luke 2:29-32).

In the Divine Office a special prayer called an antiphon precedes and closes each Psalm or Canticle and these Lucan prayers. The antiphons in Latin for Vespers from December 17-23 may be traced back to the eighth century. The first letter of each title in these prayers seems to have a message if read in reverse order: ERO CRAS means “I will be [here] tomorrow.”

The English version of these prayers is now the Alleluia verse before the Gospel of daily Mass, so has come to the attention of people participating in the daily Eucharistic Liturgy.

December 17 Sapientia (Wisdom Solo 7:21-30)
O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!

We all recall the Greek and Latin terms for wisdom – Sophia and Sapientia. In Jewish reflection on Genesis 1, the hymn of creation in seven days, God created in Wisdom – guiding the divine omnipotence into the ordering of the universe. The prologue (John 1:1-18) of the Fourth Gospel celebrates the Word of God, manifesting divine love through history. For Christians, Jesus is the power of God and the Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). The Wisdom of Solomon celebrates the manifold dimensions of Wisdom (7:22-30), as does the Book of Sira (24:1-22), identifying Wisdom and Torah. Jesus comes to show us the path to knowledge of God the Father.

December 18 Adonai (Exodus 3:14; Judith 16:16)
O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!

The Hebrew word Adonai is the common substitute for the sacred four-letter Name (YHWH) revealed to Moses in the burning bush at the foot of Mount Sinai (Exodus 3:14). Christians know the title from Jerome’s version of the Book of Judith, where the word occurs in Latin letters (16:16). Christians understood that the great mysteries of human salvation were encapsulated in this revelation to Moses (see Matthew 22:23-33, where Jesus teaches the doctrine of resurrection to a higher level of existence for eternity from Exodus 3:6). In Christian piety Byzantine artists portray Mary and the Infant Jesus in the burning bush. After God freed Israel from Egyptian servitude, Moses led the twelve tribes to Mount Sinai where they received the Torah (Law).

The Greek translation of Adonai is Kyrios, the title that is given to Jesus in the hymn which celebrates the Incarnation, Death-and-Resurrection whereby he rescued humanity from slavery to sin and “every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11). 

December 19 Radix (Isaiah 11:1)
O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay! 

The future of the Davidic dynasty was assured through the divine promise mediated by Nathan the prophet. “Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). Although the Babylonian exile seemed to crush this dynasty, people of faith looked for a new David anointed to bring this prophecy to fulfilment. “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse (David’s father) and from his root a bud shall blossom” (Isaiah 11:1-2). In the future this king will reach out to the nations, bringing the promise that “all the families of the earth” would be blessed in the name of Abram (Genesis 12:3). “On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the gentiles will seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:10). For Christians, Jesus is the sign of God’s love for all his people, so the petition of each generation is “come to save us without delay!”

December 20 Clavis (Isaiah 22:22; Apocalypse 3:7)
O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!

In a peaceful kingdom the descendant of David delegated authority to a “mayor” for the city of Jerusalem. When Shebna failed, the prophet brought the judgment of God upon him and he was replaced by Eliakim, son of the priest Hilkiah. “He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah, I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut when he shuts, no one shall open” (Isaiah 22:21-22).

Jesus is given the title “key of David,” with allusion to Isaiah 22, in the letter to the Christians of Philadelphia (Apocalypse 3:7-8). As Lord he assures each person who is faithful that the victor will enter the new Jerusalem. In the meantime Simon Peter has received a new name and has received the keys to the Kingdom of heaven, with authority on earth in relation to eternal goals (see Matthew 16:17-20). Jesus will come “to shine on those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79). His mission “to proclaim liberty to captives and release to prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1) is completed when he opens the gates to the Father’s kingdom. 

December 21 Oriens (Jer 23:5; Zech 3:8, 6:12)
O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.

The contrast between light and darkness is linked to the moral order. Human beings alienated from God wander in darkness and live in folly until they are graced with the gift of spiritual light. The Greek word for “Radiant Dawn” also renders the Hebrew term for “the righteous shoot,” son of David “who shall do what is just and right in the land” (Jeremiah 23:5; see Zechariah 3:8 and 6:12). John the Baptist prepared for “the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit darkness and in the shadow of death (Luke 1:78-79). As the righteousness of God the Father, Jesus comes to all who are in awe of the divine Name “as the sun of justice (righteousness) with healing in its rays” (Malachi 3:2).

December 22 Rex (Haggai 2:8; Psalm 118:22)
O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust! 

“The Lord shall reign forever and ever” (Exodus 15:18) constitutes the statement of Israel’s faith in the Song of Moses at the sea. God’s triumph over Pharaoh, who claimed divine kingship, is the beginning of Israel’s participation in the prerogative of royalty, “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6; 1 Peter 2:9; Apocalypse 5:10). The nations will acknowledge God’s royal authority and bestow gifts on the Temple as the great king’s house (Matthew 5:33). As Son of David “Jesus will rule over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:33), extended to all the nations in the context of eternity (see John 18:36).

The keystone or capstone is the one which completes the arch; usually it had to be cut to fit, but in this case it has been rejected by the builders for another place but finally was seen to fit this place exactly (see Psalm 118:22; Matthew 21:42; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:7).

The work of Jesus reaches all humanity, and completes the vocation of the first human being, formed from the earth (Genesis 2:7). Byzantine artists portray the crucifixion with the blood of Jesus touching a small skull buried under the place where the Roman soldiers erected the cross. This depicts the legend that Adam took a seed from the tree of life and planted it near Jerusalem, in the valley where he was buried. This explains the meaning of Golgotha, the Place of the Skull (John 19:17), called Calvaria in Latin.

December 23 Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14, 8:10; Genesis 49:10)
O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law:
come to save us, Lord our God!

The title Emmanuel (“God [is] with us” from Isaiah 7:14; 8:10) refers to the promise made by Isaiah to King Ahaz, a timorous descendant of Kind David. The Hebrew text speaks of a young woman (almah, not the technical term for virgin) who will give birth to a son who will be a sign that threats to the kingdom of Judah will evaporate. When the prophets were translated into Greek the noun Parthenos (virgin) enhanced the marvel of the prediction, seen in the light of Isaiah 9:5-6; 11:1-16; Jeremiah 23:1-7; Ezekiel 34:1-31 about the Davidic messiah. During a time when the Davidic dynasty seemed to be but a dead stump, the translator expressed hope for the future. Thus the early Christian community pointed to Jesus as Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23; 18:20; 28:20) as a key motif of the Gospel.

David’s descent from Judah is taken as the way to understand Jacob’s last words depicting Judah as a lion, the king of beasts (Genesis 49:10). Christians accept Jesus as their King and Lawgiver. The last petition in the series exhorting him to come with the gift of deliverance and salvation focuses again on us.

These prayers were created as a frame for the hymn of Mercy and place the Church’s hope around the celebration of Mary during her visit to Elizabeth. Placing them before the Gospel for the daily Mass between December 17 and 23 enables the faithful to savor them each year in two worship settings. May they bring the message of Advent to the faithful everywhere!

The antiphons are taken from Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers.

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini

Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini

The Church celebrates the feast of the Patroness of Immigrants on November 13th each year. In a succinct text, the collect for the feast at the beginning of the Mass, draws attention to her legacy:

God our Father,
who called Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini from Italy
to serve the immigrants of America,
by her example,
teach us to have concern for the stranger,
the sick, and all those in need,
and by her prayers help us to see Christ
in all the men and women we meet.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

In his homily today in Seton Hall’s Immaculate Conception chapel, Msgr. Robert Coleman drew attention to the statue of Mother Cabrini directly behind Penn Station in Newark on a small triangle of land in the “Iron Bound” section of the city. As in many other cities with a large migration from Europe, Newark and Kearny were benefactors of her community’s care for strangers, widows and orphans.

During the 101st anniversary of Mother Cabrini’s death, Catholics are invited to pray for guidance in our efforts to express hospitality to those who seek refuge from oppression and other dangers to their families. “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers (and sisters), you did for me,” says the Lord (Matthew 25:40).