Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Wednesday before Epiphany - Sunday of the Epiphany B - St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Grant us, almighty God, that the bringer of your salvation, who for the world’s redemption came forth with newness of heavenly light, may dawn afresh in our hearts and bring us constant renewal. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

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Solemnity of the Epiphany (Year “B”) - January 8, 2012
[Isaiah 60.1-6; [Psalm 72]; Ephesians 3.2-3, 5-6; Matthew 2.1-12]

Elm Street, a magazine published “for Canadian women” until 2004 was distributed free in some urban centres of Canada at its launch in 1999.  One came to my house in Halifax.  The 1999 Holiday edition caught my eye because of its cover story “And Heaven and Nature Sing”, a feature on the Jesuits who work at the Vatican Observatory.

In discussing the ways in which science and faith can relate, the author, Alison Rose told how the year before, just before Christmas, Vatican workers were seen setting up a crib at Castel Gandolfo where the Observatory offices are located.  The last statues to be added were those of Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, ancient astronomers who followed a sign in the heavens they believed would lead them to a new-born king.

When she mentioned this to Jesuit brother Guy Consolmagno, he called up on his Mac computer "Voyager", a program used by amateur astronomers to observe the stars.  After typing in 6 BC, a date commonly assigned to the birth of Jesus, the program slowly projected onto the screen a series of dots on the horizon that depicted “an extraordinary alignment of Venus, Saturn, the moon, Jupiter, sun, Mars and Mercury, all centred on the constellation Aries, in the sky over Judea, on April 17, 6 BC”.

The writer wonders whether this is “the event that the wise men calculated, that in the telling and retelling of the story over two millennia has been transformed into a star?  According to the story, this is the moment when a transcendent God entered space and time, long ago, to live a human life” (p. 40).  This is an unusual reflection in today's secular media, the type that perhaps only the Christmas story can still occasion.

Today's solemnity of the Epiphany, the “manifestation” or “revelation” of Jesus to “wise men from the East”, to non-Jews, the Gentiles, evokes the beautiful sentiments attached to gift-giving and the profound implications of a surrender to Christ:

“On entering the house, they saw the Child with Mary His Mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage”.  Then, “opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh”.

This year, as people adjust to writing 2012, indicating how many years ago Jesus’ birth took place, it may seem odd to realize that he was likely born around 6 BC.  How do we arrive at this date and how could such a miscalculation have happened?

Scripture tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea “in the time of King Herod” (Matthew 2.1).  But we know from world history that Herod began his rule in 37 BC and died in 4 BC.  Therefore, Jesus' birth had to have been prior to this latter year.

At the close of today's gospel account, we are told that the Magi, after being warned in a dream not to return to Herod's court in Jerusalem, “left for their own country by another road”.  This infuriated Herod, who ordered the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men” (2.16).  This has led scholars to assign a date for the birth of Jesus between 7 and 4 BC.

But how did the miscalculation come about, if Jesus' birth was meant to be the watershed between BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini, the “Year of the Lord”)?

Our distinction between BC and AD dates to the sixth century when a monk named Dionysius Exiguus worked out a chronology intended to centre on the birth of Christ.  Unfortunately, his calculations were off by six years!

As well, in his scheme, the year 1 AD immediately followed the year 1 BC, so there was no year 0.  Accordingly, a decade ago, many held that the second millennium could not be complete until the end of the year 2000, and so the Third Millennium only began in the year 2001.

For Christians, however, the Great Jubilee celebration was for 2000 years of the presence of Jesus in our world, the occasion for a year of thanksgiving for all the peoples of the world. 

Whatever the calculation of the years or the stars, our age—like past generations—prays with the psalmist, “May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice”.

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Today in the United States and in the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth, the feast day of Mother Seton, founder of the Sisters of Charity and architect of the Catholic school is observed.

Mother Seton is one of the keystones of the American Catholic Church. She founded the first American religious community for women, the Sisters of Charity. She opened the first American parish school and established the first American Catholic orphanage. All this she did in the span of 46 years while raising her five children.

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton is a true daughter of the American Revolution, born August 28, 1774, just two years before the Declaration of Independence. By birth and marriage, she was linked to the first families of New York and enjoyed the fruits of high society. Reared a staunch Episcopalian by her mother and stepmother, she learned the value of prayer, Scripture and a nightly examination of conscience. Her father, Dr. Richard Bayley, did not have much use for churches but was a great humanitarian, teaching his daughter to love and serve others.

The early deaths of her mother in 1777 and her baby sister in 1778 gave Elizabeth a feel for eternity and the temporariness of the pilgrim life on earth. Far from being brooding and sullen, she faced each new “holocaust,” as she put it, with hopeful cheerfulness.

At 19, Elizabeth was the belle of New York and married a handsome, wealthy businessman, William Magee Seton. They had five children before his business failed and he died of tuberculosis. At 30, Elizabeth was widowed, penniless, with five small children to support.

While in Italy with her dying husband, Elizabeth witnessed Catholicity in action through family friends. Three basic points led her to become a Catholic: belief in the Real Presence, devotion to the Blessed Mother and conviction that the Catholic Church led back to the apostles and to Christ. Many of her family and friends rejected her when she became a Catholic in March 1805.

To support her children, she opened a school in Baltimore. From the beginning, her group followed the lines of a religious community, which was officially founded in 1809.

The thousand or more letters of Mother Seton reveal the development of her spiritual life from ordinary goodness to heroic sanctity. She suffered great trials of sickness, misunderstanding, the death of loved ones (her husband and two young daughters) and the heartache of a wayward son. She died January 4, 1821, and became the first American-born citizen to be beatified (1963) and then canonized (1975). She is buried in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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O God, who crowned with the gift of true faith Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton's burning zeal to find you, grant by her intercession and example that we may always seek you with diligent love and find you in daily service with sincere faith. Through our Lord Jesus Christ....

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