Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A White Tree in the Barren Woods

This is a good view for the last day of 2019, which was such a hard year for me and for others in our local community.

For me and my family, there were certainly joys as well as sorrows and struggles, but in everything there was a note of change. Change, even good change, is never easy for me. But especially loss and grief are different and harder than I ever realized.

Overall, I am grateful for all the good things of this year (and ultimately everything is "working for the good," so I pray that the Holy Spirit will enkindle and sustain that fundamental vitality of gratitude and joy that dwells - often secretly - in the depths of the Christian soul). Still, there is much that is difficult to process, or that simply must be endured. Thus I feel a bit bewildered and existentially "displaced" at the year's end. I'm sure I'm not the only one who is going through these kinds of emotions.

It's difficult to find words to express the significance of so much that has happened in these months. I am pushed beyond the limits of ordinary knowledge. People I loved and saw with my eyes and too often took for granted - above all my own father - have passed behind that "glass" through which things can only be seen darkly... and sometimes it is very dark indeed.

I guess I can say that it has brought me to a "new place in life," even if it's a place that sometimes looks so barren and dry, like a Winter that never ends. But, I tell myself, it’s just a new and rough stage in the journey of life (oh, that sounds so cliché, but still...). My faith promises to me that Winter will end, the trees will blossom, the White Tree will spread its canopy of leaves again. And so it will remain forever, when at last the turn of the seasons reaches its end.

I'm still searching for metaphors. Maybe it's because the darkness is just too much for me to bear.

It is too much. That is why God sent His Son into the world. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5). The Word became flesh, born of the Virgin Mary, and took up His dwelling with us. He remains with us, living in the midst of the people He has gathered together (ekklesia, "church") to follow Him and be His witnesses to the whole world.

His presence is encountered through abundant signs and symbols, and especially through the mysterious way that He reaches me here and now through His glorified humanity. Jesus who is Lord of the universe takes up earthly things, gestures, and words, and makes them instruments of Himself so He can touch my life: this is the miracle of the sacraments. These are not like the metaphors I grasp at when I am lost in the dark woods. They do not come from my mind or my imagination. They are given to me.

He gives Himself in the sacraments. He is the Eucharist, present for me, offering Himself to me. I feel blind, powerless, dispossessed. But He still wants to be with me. When I have nothing, He is still "here," and He holds onto me though I know not where I am going in the days, months, and years ahead.

As I have said elsewhere, Jesus Himself is my hope. In my darkest obscurity, He finds me through His presence in the Church, through prayer and the sacraments. Lord, whatever you are doing with me, wherever you are leading me, I pray that I will never give up trusting in you.

"God is good. All the time." Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Three Days in a Monastery Thirty Years Ago

As long as everyone is being retrospective about "decades," here's an old thing that takes me back three decades, to the last three days of 1989. These are some notes from a retreat I made at Holy Cross Abbey — the Cistercian monastery in Berryville, Virginia — on December 29, 30, and 31, 1989.

It was quite simple: the weekend was spent at the retreat house on the property of the monastery. Guests were fed, and an old monk was available for spiritual guidance insofar as anyone wished to receive it (and I recall having a good, down-to-earth meeting with him). The rest of the retreat was unscheduled, other than an open invitation to participate in all the liturgical offices of the monks, throughout the days and nights, in the abbey church.

I remember these three days of prayer and silence as being reflective, serious, and helpful regarding some important decisions I had to make at the time. Unfortunately, these notes don't shed much light on the decisions or the circumstances which, after thirty years, could use a little brightening up in my own mind. It's not until you're older that you realize how valuable a written journal can be for stirring up your own memories. I wish these pages were more useful to me in that regard.

I was a few days shy of turning 27 years old, which — even in these days of "extended adolescence" — usually signifies that a person is, finally, an adult. Yet I was still very much a dreamer, an abstracted academic, and (especially since that Summer) a person much taken up in my own imagination. I had written a small collection of poetry which I felt good about (only one of those poems I might still consider "passable" today). At the time, I had "literary sensibility on-the-brain."

I was far from finding my own voice, however. That is probably why these pages seem so affected to me now. It reads like I was trying to imitate Thomas Merton's journals (or even unconsciously plagiarizing from them, since I was strolling through the woods and fields of a Trappist monastery).

I don't know what to make of all this. But anyway, here it is:

This does show the manner in which I used to write in the old days, in long hand, direct from my mind onto the page, with much more legible handwriting than I have now. As far as I know, these are the original, unrevised pages. The ideas and images are alright, but they are strangely "polished" for notes. I had skill at drafting my thoughts quickly, but this lacks a sense of spontaneity, and gives little insight into what I was learning through the retreat or actually dealing with in my life at the time.

"What I want, what I thirst for, is to be alone"? Really? It seems like I was writing what I thought I was supposed to feel like — being an earnest and grave young man — after a weekend with the Trappists. If there was something real about this thirst for solitude, I don't remember it. I had no desire to enter the monastery. I don't know what I was getting at, and I can't help thinking that I was just trying to reassure myself that I had had a "deep" experience.

Perhaps I wanted to "want-to-be-alone" because, at the time, I felt very much alone. Maybe I was even a bit depressed (though I did not yet know anything about mental health in those days). I was in any case given to overusing metaphors in what were supposed to be my own retreat notes.

I might have been just pitching out themes and images for a poem that never got written.

I certainly was not settled in the direction of my life. Many of us in the academic world were adrift or lonely (or both) in those days. We were unevenly formed (at best). We lived very much in our heads. I suppose to some extent I still do.

Unlike the notes, the retreat was substantial. Perhaps I'm being unduly harsh about writing that doesn't sound that much different from what I churn out now. One never really does very well at understanding oneself (which is why writers need editors and people need... other people).

What is interesting is that 1990 proved to be a crucial year for me. In the first few weeks of the new decade, I met some new friends and the beginnings of a much more secure, much less lonely path on which to travel.

One of those friends, who I met for the first time shortly after this retreat, was a girl named Eileen.😊 

Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Face of God

"For us God is not some abstract hypothesis; 
He is not some stranger 
who left the scene after the 'Big Bang.'
God has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ.
In the face of Jesus Christ we see the face of God.
In His words we hear God Himself speaking to us."

~Benedict XVI

Friday, December 27, 2019

The Decade of The Washington Nationals

Since we're all doing the "Decade Retrospective" thing in these days, I want to share my statistical doodling that I recently undertook in order to procrastinate from working pass a few leisurely moments. It pertains to the phenomenon of this past decade that my son and I will always be able to look back upon as bathed in the warm light of ultimate success. Moreover, it is a success that came at the end of the decade, just in time to rescue us from having to look back on these same numbers with cold cynicism.

The 2010s were The Decade of The Washington Nationals.

For us as Nats baseball fans, literally one game (game 7 of the 2019 World Series) made the difference in our experience of this decade as being a thrill of victories rather than an agony of defeats. That doesn't seem to make sense, but ultimately sports are not about the exercise of reason in the exact manner of a science. They are about play. Within the "realm of the game" (admittedly minor in relation to other, much more important realms of life, but also a realm that has its own integrity) the "thrills" and "agonies" have their own significance, which we must not underestimate.

Players and their performances on the field are a big part of this, of course. This is the decade that began with Stephen Strasburg's 14-strikeout major league debut on June 8, 2010 and ended with Stephen Strasburg's winning the World Series MVP on October 31, 2019 (and going on to sign a long-term contract with the Nationals this past month — for us fans that means he's staying on our field for a long time). Ryan Zimmerman, a career Nat, played frequently injured during the decade, but made it all the way to being a clutch factor in the playoffs and World Series. Max Scherzer: all the great seasons, the two Cy Young awards, the strikeouts, the no-hitters, and... winning the World Series.

There was much that was memorable during all the seasons of the decade, even if four of them ended in first-round playoff disappointment. Pitchers like Jordan Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez gave us great years, and then Jayson Werth — who played with the Nats from 2011-2017 — did so much to build the fighting spirit of the winning team they became two years after he retired. Werth also hit the game-winning home run back in 2012 that kept the Nats alive in their first playoff series (before this year, that was the top highlight of the Nats' post-season play).

Am I forgetting anybody?

Oh... there was that dude who hit lots of towering home runs and then decided to play for the Philadelphia Phillies... what was his name again?😉

But here's another thing: the game of baseball is not just played on the field. It's a game that involves a combination of luck and a diversity of skills. And while the most important skills, no doubt, can't be "measured" in any simple way, many aspects of baseball performance can be quantified in a set of statistics that provide significant and detailed information but also can be understood and calculated by a 10-year-old.

Kids in the U.S.A. often "discover" mathematics through baseball. Arithmetic becomes fun when you're figuring out batting averages, won-lost percentages, and cumulative career numbers such as can be found on any good baseball card. Some people go much further into it (maybe too far — SABRmetric people, whoa!). But for many of us the ordinary statistics of a 162 game baseball season that first fascinated us at age 10-or-so still resonate with us and spark our interest even after many years.

Sports in our society today — like everything else — are excessive enterprises, but as long as the game is still played, they will fascinate kids and reawaken the discovering, adventuresome child in all of us. Baseball, for me, will always evoke Spring and then Summer, sunshine, ball fields, balls and bats and gloves, as well as childhood and fatherhood (from my grandfather to my father to me to my son). It also still puts some sparkle into numbers, even after all these years.

Obviously, the numbers are sweeter when you win!

Here are some numbers from the Nationals Decade, 2010-2019:

2010: 69-93 .426 5th
2011: 80-81 .497 3rd
2012: 98-64 .605 1st* (NLEast)
2013: 86-76 .531 2nd
2014: 96-66 .593 1st* (NLEast)
2015: 83-79 .512 2nd
2016: 95-67 .586 1st* (NLEast)
2017: 97-65 .599 1st* (NLEast)
2018: 82-80 .506 2nd
2019: 93-69 .574 2nd (wildcard
Total 879-740 .543 (quite good overall)

•Four National League Eastern Division Titles
•One National League Pennant
•Four second place finished (one wild card)
•Won at least 80 games nine seasons
•Finished over .500 eight seasons
•Finished at least 10 games over .500 six times
•Won more than 90 games five seasons
•Won more than 95 games four seasons
•Finished over .600 one season

~Won one Wild Card playoff (2019)
~Lost four NLDS (2012, 2014, 2016, 2017)
~Won one NLDS (2019)
~Won one NLCS, i.e. “the Pennant” (2019)
~Won one World Series (2019)

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Christmas is a Season

“On the second day of Christmas...”🎶

Remember, Christmas is not over! We have just begun the wonderful Christmas Season

Today is the Second Day of the Christmas Octave (as well as the feast of Saint Stephen, the first martyr whose story is told in the New Testament, in Acts 7). We are in a season of celebration, to commemorate especially the events in which the Word was made flesh and came to dwell among us, save us, and show us the face of our God who is Love.

It is a time to rejoice in the Lord, be grateful, extend ourselves with compassion toward those in need, and care for one another.

Merry Christmas Day Two!!🌲

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Merry Christmas 2019

This First Day of Christmas was a bit chaotic.😮 

The water line got shut off somewhere on our block, but eventually it came back on. The town must have taken care of it. Utility workers are on call, apparently, even on Christmas... and now we know why. God bless them!

Also, some of us in the family are "under-the-weather" to varying degrees (although, the actual weather was really nice today). We had to attend Mass in two shifts. We had a lovely meal in the evening, thanks to Eileen and others who were healthy.

In any case, Christmas is Christmas. Christ is born. Glory to Him! We thank God for His mercy in sending His Son, and we are grateful to be all together as a family. I did think about my Dad a bit (and pray for him) — many old memories of Christmases past were stirring in my head (more on that another day). 

With all the peculiarities of the day, there was no chance to take the Christmas family picture. So instead there's a collage (above) for our Christmas (Virtual) "Card" 2019 along with a few other images from the day (below). 

Our parish church altar decorated on Christmas morning

We only finished doing our tree last night. Putting on "the Star"

We wish everyone a Happy Christmas Season. Keep celebrating!😉

Sangria was refreshing...

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

"He Comes to Save You"

"Be strong, fear not! Here is your God; he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you."

Christmas Eve. The vigil approaches, when we will keep watch under the night sky. The Lord is near....

He comes as a child. He brings healing. He reveals the unconquerable power of God's love that sets us free.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Joseph May Not Have Thought What We Think He Thought

Because this post never gets "old," I like to run it again from time to time, especially when we read the one text in the New Testament that gives us some idea of the perspective of St Joseph when he first found himself caught up in the events we are about to celebrate. Thus once again I present, for your reading (or rereading) consideration, this bloggy "digest" of some of my old undergraduate lecture material, entitled "Joseph May Not Have Thought What We Think He Thought."

Everyone is familiar with the Gospel reading from yesterday's liturgy for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. It was all about Jesus being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary... from the perspective of St. Joseph. We think we know what is going on in this passage, but perhaps we assume too much:
"When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins'" (Matthew 1:18-21).
Ah yes, that "touchy" little situation.

Thus we are introduced to St. Joseph, and the testimony of Divine Revelation to this greatest of saints after Mary herself is largely contained in these first two chapters of Matthew (along with some references in Luke 1-2). Indeed, this is one of his most important moments; it is the moment upon which his vocation is founded. What do we learn about him in this passage?

Perhaps it is something a little different from what we initially think. For a person like me, this story might enter into my mind and get mixed around and end up sounding something like this (note well -- the actual words of the Scripture are in bold type; the rest is JJ's imagination coloring in the details):
Joseph her husband, when he realized that Mary must of been... well... unfaithful to their betrothal (which really surprised him since Mary had been so completely, astonishingly, immaculately good up until then) since he was a righteous man, yet [YET?] unwilling to expose her to shame, (in other words he was "righteous" but he wasn't like "crazy righteous" -- the Law said an adulterous wife should be stoned to death [see Deuteronomy 22], but he decided to ignore the Law and let it slide because he was a nice guy,) decided to divorce her quietly. (Mary had this story about an angel and a miracle and the Holy Spirit, but as Joseph himself said in Franco Zeffirelli's movie Jesus of Nazareth [and he must have said it, because we saw it on TV], "That's too much for any man to believe!" But still, he was a nice guy so he was willing to hush things up and break it off quietly.) Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David [why did he call him that?], do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. [PERIOD! That means the angel finishes his sentence here. Then he takes a deep breath and continues with the next sentence...For (in other words, after have taken his deep breath, the angel proceeds to explain to Joseph what really happened, setting the record straight that Mary was telling the truth after all) it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." At which point Joseph goes <FACEPALM> "If I had known, O angel, that Mary was really bearing the Messiah, the Son of God, in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit, I would never have 'divorced her quietly'! Oh no, I would have taken her into my home and taken upon myself the earthly responsibilities of fatherhood for... you know... God Incarnate...."
Okay, JJ... enough snarkiness. What's the point? Well, the point here is that if I step back and examine what seems to be the common sense interpretation of this text, it starts to raise all sorts of problems. There's not a whole lot of bold type in that long paragraph. I have to make a lot of assumptions, which is not unreasonable since these assumptions are generally made even by theologians (generally, but not universally, and -- as we shall see -- there is good reason for a different reading).

The interpretation fills in details that are precisely not mentioned in the text, but that seem necessary to make sense of it. The thinking is that Joseph is divorcing Mary for infidelity, and he is assuming that her pregnancy is a result of that infidelity (maybe she tried to explain it and he didn't believe her, or maybe she said nothing because of humility, in which case he still must have been somewhat flustered). He is a "just man," so he's not interested in getting revenge against the perpetrator, nor does he want to "press charges" according to the Law, but he also has no intention of covering the whole matter up by taking her in as his wife and presenting himself as the child's father. Then the angel appears to him and tells him not to be afraid to marry Mary because she is innocent and the child has been conceived by a miracle. The child, in fact, is the Savior. Problem solved. The marriage is back on.

Problem solved? On closer inspection, maybe not. Actually we have several problems here. The underlying problem is that we interpret this whole event based on a presupposition that is not in the text. In fact, a closer look at the text reveals that our presupposition (that Joseph is divorcing Mary because he thinks she's pregnant by human agency) is not supported; indeed, the implications lead in another direction entirely.

What I'm presenting here is theological and exegetical opinion, which has been much more precisely expressed by theologians and biblical exegetes (such as, for example, John McHugh, in his fascinating book The Mother of Jesus in the New Testament [1975] and Giorgio Buccellati, longtime professor of Ancient Near Eastern studies at UCLA [see e.g. "The Prophetic Dimension of Joseph," Communio, Spring 2006] -- just so you know that my ramblings here are backed by scholarly heavyweights). Scott Hahn refers to the two opinions on this text as the Suspicion Theory (Joseph thinks Mary committed adultery until the angel reveals otherwise) and the Reverence Theory (which is... well, let's see). Scott himself doesn't "take sides" here, but (to my reading) he also leans in the direction of the latter theory (see The Gospel of Matthew, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, p. 18).

That will have to suffice for scholarly "apparatus" in what is a decidedly non-scholarly blog post. JJ just wants to outline why he now sees this event in a different light, not only because it makes more sense, but also because St Joseph is his homeboy. (Really, I don't know where I'd be without him.)

Let's take a closer look at this text. Mary "was found with child through the Holy Spirit." What does this mean? Exactly what it says (also in the Greek). Before Joseph took Mary into his home, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Once again, note well that does not say that she was "found with child and claimed that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit." We might assume that the point here is that Mary was "found with child" and that Matthew just adds the Holy Spirit parenthetically. Is this assumption warranted? Let's examine further and see if we really need these invisible parentheses.

Clearly, Mary is with child and Joseph wants to end the relationship. He has no choice but to divorce Mary, since the betrothal is already a binding legal commitment. But he doesn't want to "bring shame" upon her (stoning to death and all that), so he decides to do it "quietly." And all of these assumptions hinge on Joseph being a "just" or "righteous" man, which means that he is a man devoted to the Law (hence divorce) who is simultaneously a man willing to set the Law aside (hence "quietly").


The quiet divorce is something of a head-scratcher. Our lectionary translation gives us something that is appropriately bumbling: "Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly." Since? Yet? He was righteous, but...? And while we're at it, let's look at this term that Matthew decides to toss in here: dikaios. This is Greek for the Hebrew saddiq. Such a title is not awarded lightly in the Scriptures. This is a profound and full sense of righteousness, such as is attributed to Noah and Abraham. This is the kind of "justice" out of which radical foundations can be made. Here is Joseph the Righteous.

And Matthew has introduced this term to explain to us (while also confusing us further) the reason why Joseph decided to be kind and merciful to his adulterous wife? Assuming that there's some wiggle room in the Law for this kind of arrangement (and we all assume this, of course), it would seem that a decent man could take this road without much heroic virtue. It hardly requires the righteousness of Noah or Abraham to walk away from an unfaithful spouse, without obligations and with a spotless reputation. The betrothed woman is allowed to live. We assume (again) that the "quiet" will succeed in smoothing over the situation for everybody, whereas in fact it refers only to refraining from filing a public charge. In such circumstances, the woman is still socially disgraced and even cast out of home and family, shamed for the rest of her life. It's not like she can go abroad for a year, have the baby, and then come back with nobody knowing anything about it. This is not the Hamptons. This is a Palestinian village. In 4 b.c. Everybody in the village knows everything. As for Joseph? Not his problem anymore.

But, Matthew tells us, Joseph is not the average man who wants to cut his losses and get out of town. He is saddiq. He is just. He is righteous. The angel in the dream does not rebuke him nor cause some great moral conversion. Joseph is already the quintessential steadfast man. Still, given what we assume to be his understanding, he's not doing anything "wrong." (Or is he being shifty with the Law? Isn't there a better way? Oh gosh what a mixup!)

What's wrong with this picture?

Perhaps we can keep all these human assumptions (as many, but not all, church fathers and many, but not all, interpreters have) and still squeeze it all together and make it fit. It's all a big misunderstanding that the angel clears up, to our great relief, by telling Joseph the truth.

If only Joseph had known from the start that Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit, then it would have been.... ? What "would it have been"? What if?

Consider this possibility: What if Mary told Joseph about the Annunciation, and Joseph did believe her? What if Joseph, the righteous man, totally, totally believed her?

Here also, we are assuming (or hypothesizing) something that the text doesn't come right out and state. But why do we assume that it didn't happen this way? There is nothing implausible about this communication between these particularly extraordinary betrothed spouses. I would think that Joseph would be the first person she would tell. What we do know of Mary from the Gospels indicates that she was humble and obedient, yes, but not timid. She was also practical.

This was something Joseph needed to know. I see no reason why Mary would not have told him the whole thing, right away.

And how far have we really departed from the text in "assuming" this? Matthew 1:18 says "she was found with child through the Holy Spirit." Matthew is giving us Joseph's perspective here (is any other person mentioned?). So who "found" out that she was "with child"? Joseph. And how did he find out? Mary told him. Is it possible that what Joseph "found" was that Mary was "with child through the Holy Spirit"?

"But, but..." we might say, "if he had known, there wouldn't have been any thought of divorce, right?"

On the contrary. In these circumstances we have precisely what we need to make sense of the "quiet 'divorce' of the 'just man'" -- this is where lots of pieces fall into place in a way that I find compelling. It is precisely at this point that Matthew tells us that Joseph is saddiq, that he is righteous with that sense of awe and wonder at the mystery of God; in fact he is one in a million, the man to whom the Lord had already entrusted His most magnificent creation: the Immaculate Virgin Mary. But what has Mary just told him? She has been "overshadowed" by the Most High and has now become, in a new way, the dwelling place of the Holy One. (When Mary asked the angel, "How?" in Luke 1, she got a very clear answer.) Both Mary and Joseph recognized in these terms the references to the Shekinah, the Glory of God who descended upon the Ark of the Covenant, who dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the temple.

Only those called specifically by God to the Levitical priesthood were allowed to pass beyond the veil and enter the Holy of Holies. But what was this that had happened to Mary? The Glory dwells in her. It is precisely because Joseph is "Just" according to God's own heart that he would never presume that a human betrothal gave him the right to take the New Ark of the Covenant by his own authority into his home. (I know, I'm coordinating Matthew and Luke here, but I'm one of these people who actually believes that, whatever literary genres are being employed in these narratives, their purpose is to convey to us stuff that really happened.)

Joseph learns that Mary is "with child through the Holy Spirit" and that she has received a new, divine vocation. But he has had no revelation from God, no new vocation that corresponds with Mary's. What can he do? He is a "righteous man" and is able to understand that Mary has become a bearer of God's Glory. Surely, the Lord will make His will known for Mary and this extraordinary child. The Lord will assure that Mary is protected, no doubt by someone worthier than Joseph himself. The only role Joseph sees for himself here is to release Mary from the obligations of the betrothal (yes, the word for "divorce" can be understood in this way) to make room for whomever God chooses. Of course, Joseph will do it "quietly," secretly, because it would be manifestly more than unjust to expose Mary to shame. It would be wicked. "Joseph, since he was a righteous man" (1:19) would never do such a thing. He will release her right away, and keep her secret to himself.

For his own part, Joseph is filled with awe and humility. He is full of that eminently righteous gift which is the fear of the Lord. No doubt he wonders about many things, and is probably confused and "afraid" in the emotional sense. But above all, he is surrendering Mary to the mystery and the freedom of God's plan.

This is his intention when the angel appears. And here more things start to make sense. The angel says to him, "Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home." The "fear" indicated here is the kind that the human person has before the mystery of God. The "Suspicion Theory" has no way to explain this fear. If Joseph thinks Mary's pregnancy is ordinary, it's hard to see what he would be "afraid" of even in a purely human sense. He would be opposed to taking an adulteress into his house, not for any reasons of fear, much less the fear of the presence of God. He would be concerned for her dismal future. He would have no fear about himself; he has done the right thing.

But the angel invokes that fear in the presence of God and relates it directly to Joseph taking Mary into his home. That would make perfect sense if Mary in fact has the presence of God within her in a wholly new and unimaginable way.

But how do we account for the angel giving Joseph the news of Mary's miraculous conception in a way that seems "fresh" if he already knows about it? Isn't there a divinely inspired PERIOD that divides 1:20? "Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her." These two sentences do sound like the angel is relieving Joseph's "fear" by informing him that Mary's child is in fact of the Holy Spirit. But we've seen that this fact is the only meaningful reason for Joseph's fear in the first place.

Here's where we must realize the limitations of translation. The New Testament was written in the common Greek of the first century, with no word spacing or punctuation. Many terms that have various possible renderings get standardized by translators for a variety of reasons. Frankly I'm not a New Testament scholar or a Greek scholar. But here I'm relying on John McHugh (see above) who is both. McHugh says that it is legitimate to read this verse in a different way, pulling out the punctuation that isn't there in the first place and using some unwieldy clauses which don't sound great in English but render the sense more accurately.

The result is that the angel's words to Joseph actually emphasize that Joseph's knowledge of the miracle is the cause of his fear. What we should read here goes something like this: Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home on account of the fact that it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. Now that makes sense.

And there is a hint here too of what the angel's real purpose is in this vision: "Joseph, son of David..." he says. It's interesting that this narrative begins at verse 18. The first 17 verses of Matthew's gospel are a genealogy from Abraham through David (the King to whom the promise of God is given) to Jesus. When I see the genealogies in the Scriptures, I am tempted to zone out. I am even tempted to open Matthew's gospel and just start at verse 18. But this genealogy does catch my attention because after all these carefully recorded names we arrive at "Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born" (1:16).

Wait! If Joseph is not Jesus's biological father, then what good is the genealogy? In fact, it's a lot of good, and it sets the stage and indicates the focus of the narrative that follows. Kingly inheritance passes from father to son in the Hebrew tradition. Mary's lineage has no legal significance and it is the legal claim to be a descendant of David that is necessary for Jesus to inherit the Davidic kingship and fulfill the promise.

But there was no human father! The inheritance can only be handed on if a descendant of David steps in and acts as father to Jesus (we say that Joseph "adopts" Him, but I'm not sure that we have an entirely adequate term to describe the sui generis role that Joseph is called to play).

"She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus" (1:21). Now we know what this angelic visit is all about. The angel is giving Joseph his specific vocation; he is conveying God's authorization (indeed His command) that Joseph enter into a unique service to this new Shekinah, this new presence of God in the world: that he take his wife into his home without fear, because he, Joseph, is the one called by God to take on this responsibility. And he is called to this because he is a "son of David" and he therefore passes on the earthly line of the Messianic king to Mary's son, to whom he gives the name of Jesus.

Personally, I'm convinced. This has gotta be it. Remember that Scott Hahn called this the Reverence Theory, and I think we understand why. It's simple. It makes everything fit together. It's consistent with the details Matthew gives us and fits better into the context. It explains Matthew's statement that from the beginning Mary was "found to be with child through the Holy Spirit." It accounts eminently and in every respect for Joseph's title of saddiq, right in the place where Matthew introduces it (without resorting to casuistry about the Law, or a murky sense of what Joseph was up to or what human problem he was afraid of, or having to posit this odd, tense, and mistrustful beginning of the Holy Family).

The "Reverence Theory" corresponds to the singular sanctity of the man, St. Joseph -- always obedient, always steadfast, always following God's will and trusting in His wisdom. That is the St. Joseph I know, and I have no reason to believe he was ever otherwise.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Frosty Early Morning

This work is called Frosty Early Morning, December 22 (photo-based Digital Art).

The picture really does convey the look and the "feel" of things at 8:00 AM today. It was a sharp cutting cold with ice on car windows.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Agnese Turns 21 Years Old, as Christmas Draws Near

Happy Birthday Agnese Janaro. You're 21 years old now. As you know, I can't resist these "comparison collages" (age 5 on the left) but for parents they give a sweet kind of nostalgia. We're proud of the beautiful person you have grown up to be, and — of course — we're always here for you. We love you, Agnese!❤⭐ In a couple of months you will embark on what we hope will be a very special time of your university life: the Semester in Rome! You have waited a long time to go to a country where (finally) everyone will be able to pronounce your name. It will be worth the wait. The Italians make it sound like poetry!

Readers of this Blog may have noticed that, for the Janaro family, this decade has been about "kids growing up."

I think some of my bios in the publishing and internet world still say that we have "five children"! That status needs to be updated. It needs to say, "We are the parents of five..." or some such thing. Teresa and Jojo are still kids, even though Teresa drives her own Ford Explorer SUV around, and rides and takes care of her own horse. Jojo is certainly in no rush to grow up, and still enjoys being a child. Adolescence is just beginning for her. 

We had five children until pretty recently, like ... you know, 2010? My "most recent" book Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy came out at the beginning of this decade (order it here by clicking this link — people do still buy it, read it, and find it helpful; and I'm grateful for that). The reflections in it remain pertinent. My health is, perhaps, a bit better now. One big difference, however, is that "the kids" are no longer aged 12, 11, 9, 7, and 3.

They are now 22, 21, 19, 17, and 13. For the "kids," this decade has been a big one. Which means it has been big for us too. I pray that the Lord will continue to bless and take care of our family and each of its members, and also the generation above us — our parents and the kids' grandparents. For them too, it has been a decade of many new challenges. My father is the first to have completed the journey of this earthly life. He passed away in April, three days shy of his 84th birthday.

Christmas is in a few days. For me it will be the first Christmas ever without Dad. Even the year I lived in Italy, we could talk on the telephone. So this is very different. Mom is recuperating slowly but steadily from her recent broken-bone injury. Temporarily, she has moved to a smaller efficiency apartment at a lovely Assisted Living place in Arlington where she can continue to receive therapy and all the care she needs at her own pace. We have begun the process leading to selling my parents' condo and selling our house, as well as looking at larger houses that would have space for Mom to come live with us.

Very big things will be happening, God willing, in 2020. (A wedding too!!)

But before that, Christmas approaches, and in celebrating it we remember that we are all still children, because we are children of God who has revealed Himself as our loving Father. Indeed, He sent His Son as a child to reveal the simplicity and depth of His love. I pray abundant blessings for all my readers as Christmas draws near. May its celebration bring you joy and peace.

And there's another collage of little Agnese and current Agnese (she's 3 or 4 years old on the left in this one).

Friday, December 20, 2019

Key of David

"O Key of David... Come..." It's December 20th already. The Lord is near. The Christmas Season will soon begin!

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

We are "Saved in Hope"

"Are you 'saved'?"

When Evangelicals ask this question to faithful, devout, and well-instructed Catholic Christians, the Catholics sometimes feel like they have been "cornered." On the one hand, the question seems intent on probing whether someone who claims to be a Christian is in fact a true disciple of Jesus Christ, a believer whose life is being transformed by the grace of God. On the other hand, the question feels "loaded" (not without reason): the whole doctrinal controversy over sola fide, sola gratiae, etc. seems contained in it.

When confronted with this question — at work, school, or social events, not to mention on the street or at one's front door — Catholic Christians often don't know how to respond. We definitely want to affirm with joy the free grace of God given to us through the Cross of Jesus Christ, who has delivered us from sin and death and made us a new creation. But we also want to avoid any impression that we think the grace of Christ is a "thing" given to us "in a box" that we can stick on a shelf without heeding it further.

We want to avoid presumption; we do not want to discount the importance of free will, or the role of good works and perseverance in attaining the fullness of our promised inheritance in Christ. Not only the Council of Trent and the whole tradition, but also the New Testament require this. The ancient faith handed on from Apostolic times — the faith of the martyrs, the Church Fathers, the great saints over the course of 2000 years — embraces the mystery of salvation with a fullness and richness that correspond to a vision of Christian life as engaging and transforming the whole person. Indeed, our Evangelical brothers and sisters who really pray and meditate on the Scriptures "know" this in their hearts and live it out practically, even if some feel the need to cling to certain polemically-generated theological formulations that oversimplify or fail to do justice to the "mystical depth" (and personal depth) of the whole Christian experience.

I mean no condescension by this last statement; people's articulated adherence to different "faith-traditions" (and the statements and outlook considered essential to their historic raisons d'être) emerges from complex historical events and personal experiences, in which profound truths are often interwoven with expressions, practices, attitudes, etc, of lesser value. As Christians who desire the unity that Jesus wills for all of us, we seek to grow together through prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who continually renews and purifies us in mind and heart.

But to return to the original question: "Are we 'saved'?"

Some Evangelicals assert that "accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Savior" means that I affirm as an intellectual conviction — with absolute subjective certainty, here and now, while I am still living this earthly life, while I still follow Jesus on the arduous "narrow path" of my life's vocation — that I will definitely go to heaven when I die. They claim that what I must believe, without question, is that I am among the final elect — they say that this conviction follows from believing that the omnipotent God, through the blood of Christ, atones for all my sins and constitutes Himself as my righteousness. In their view, to imply that any actions or cooperation might be required of me, that I must "live out my faith" in order to arrive at eternal salvation, indicates something less than total confidence in (and total submission to) the power of God in Christ.

The implication is that I am not a true Christian — that I do not "really" have faith — unless I am intellectually infallibly convinced that the whole existential drama of my life and freedom is over, that my place is absolutely secure without reference to what kind of a person I might become in the future, as if the perfection of my freedom is of no concern to God and irrelevant to my identity as a child of God. This is what some Evangelicals assert conceptually and debate theologically.

Obviously this is not the Catholic Christian teaching about faith. It is also difficult to see how it can be reconciled with the multitude of exhortations (and warnings) directed at believing Christians throughout the New Testament. Indeed this debate today is carried out quite frequently among Evangelicals themselves, across a spectrum of opinions from Luther and Calvin to Arminius, Wesley, the Pentecostal movement, and other contemporary views.

It is important to realize that Evangelical Protestants argue about these (and many other) points. Being a "Bible Christian" is much more complicated than it may appear to be. What is also important, however, is the observation that sincere, practical, prayerful Evangelicals — whatever theoretical position they may hold on these classical Protestant debates — generally live their lives with a real and vital love for Christ, a passion to follow Him and do His will, a de facto sense that their actions (good or bad, virtuous or sinful) really do matter in the eyes of God, and a healthy inclination to honor those who have served the Lord courageously and faithfully.

One concern that we might identify as a motivation for the "are-you-saved?-question" is the determination to insure that all glory is given to God. The questioner may also be trying to distinguish between someone who is a real believer and a genuine committed disciple of Jesus, and someone who is just an "admirer" of Christ and holds a loose, vague ideal of Christian "humanitarianism." Too many people think that Christianity is about a distant God, a more-or-less "mythical" Christ, and a strict moral code. Evangelicals see that such a mentality betrays the Gospel. They want to propose a vital Christianity in which the saving power of God in Jesus Christ and our total dependence on Him are affirmed without ambiguity and with all the strength they deserve. And to ensure the recognition that God's power is life-changing, that it really "matters" to life right now.

Catholic Christians also want to affirm this. I don't want to pretend there are no real theoretical and practical differences here, but simply to point out that there is much we have in common.

So, ... are we "saved" by grace? Now?

"In hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance" (Romans 8:24-25).

What is St Paul's phrase? We are "saved in hope" — and hope is a gift from God that generates a living adherence in us, the trust engendered within a relationship with Jesus. Our salvation is "within a relationship" that does exist "now." We are also empowered to live our lives within that relationship. God "saves us" by embracing us as real human persons; He embraces our whole personality, which precisely "now" is that of a free-person-living-within-history. Salvation is the work of His grace, but He does not save puppets. He saves persons, and His power is at work "inside" the life of the person, "within" the very freedom itself of the person and within the history in which possibilities for freedom — for self-giving love — continue to unfold.

"Everything is grace..." These are the words of one of Catholic Christianity's greatest witnesses to the Gospel: Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.

Everything really is grace, because our Christian life as it grows through the personal history of our earthly vocation — and all our good works — are the fruit of grace, the grace that is transforming us and enabling us to participate in the life of God. Grace precedes, accompanies, and brings to fulfillment every good action but in a way that makes them also really "our own" acts.

God creates us as free persons, and in Christ He recreates us as redeemed persons in relationship with Himself (a "relationship" with the Trinity as children of the Father through Jesus in the Holy Spirit).

It is a "new life" in the Spirit that begins now. We are certain of Jesus Christ, of His presence in our lives, of His saving love for us. We Catholic Christians need to speak personally about Jesus as the center of life, and look at our own lives and find how this relationship shapes our lives. And if our lives lack that vital interest, that affection for Christ — that adherence that changes the way we see reality, the way we judge things and value things — then we need to ask Him to convert our hearts and open our eyes. Dialogue with non-Catholic Christians can be an occasion to reflect more on how much we really depend — totally — on Jesus.

For me, one of the difficulties with the question "Am I 'saved'?" is that I feel like it puts the emphasis in the wrong place. It implies that in order to have confidence in God, I have to find some kind of absolute certainty inside my own narrow self-understanding, my own convictions about myself, my own subjective attitude which is so often mediated to my consciousness through a jumble of psychological issues, shifting emotions, and so many other limitations involved with being human.

Ultimately the confidence and strength of my life are not drawn from (or dependent on) ideas about myself, impressions, emotions, or any process of self-discovery.

My confidence is in God, because of Jesus Christ.

I know that I belong to Jesus Christ. He died on the Cross for me, He rose from the dead for me, He is my Lord, my Savior, my Redeemer, my Hope. HE is the meaning of my life. I was created to belong to Him, to be His brother, and through Him to be an adopted son of the Father in the Holy Spirit.

I want to look at Jesus, and I pray for the grace to remember Jesus and trust Jesus.

Jesus is here for me and He is ever faithful. I trust in Him. I don't "see" and there is much that I need to "endure with patience," but in hope I look forward to fulfilling my personal vocation in the time — the "history" — that it encompasses in God's plan. My hope is in the working of the Holy Spirit who comes to lead me and empower me — in the whole of my human personal reality — with an awakened and increasing freedom to be conformed to Christ, to love God and other persons through a genuine gift of myself. By this path of faith working through love — a path planned by God, given by God, and enabled and sustained by God as the path of salvation in Jesus Christ for me as a person — I hope to arrive at eternal fulfillment in Him.

I hope in Jesus who is my Salvation. I rejoice in that hope, even as I long to see His face, and I pray and beg Him to remind me again when I forget. I do not seek to be either presumptuous or anxious about myself, but rather to live in relationship with Him, to press onward toward Him, trusting in Him, staying with Him, turning back to Him if I forget and wander off, always depending entirely on Him, Jesus, my Lord, my God who came into the world to save me, and who comes as the Risen One, through the Holy Spirit, into the history of my life to accompany me step by step on the road to the Father's house.

I don't know if my Evangelical interlocutors would regard this as an answer to the question "Are you 'saved'?" I would be glad, however, if they recognized that I am a Christian, and that I am their brother.

[This text is a work "in progress" that will be continued....]

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Pope Francis Marks Anniversary and Birthday

In the past week, Pope Francis has celebrated the 50 year anniversary of his ordination and his 83rd birthday.

Sending best wishes and many, many prayers for you, Papa Francisco, as you continue to exercise the ministry the Lord has entrusted to you!

Monday, December 16, 2019

Hong Kong: The Protest Goes On, the Stakes Increase

The struggle in Hong Kong has intensified dramatically since the last time I posted about it. Indeed, it has managed to keep the attention of the Western media, one reason being that it has exacerbated China's "image problem," undermining China's current efforts to present itself as a responsible business and trade partner.

But in the West there is also a combination of growing support, admiration, and astonishment at the perseverance of the protesters. The stubbornness of the Hong Kong government and its masters in Beijing is, by contrast, not surprising. We have begun to wonder, however, why Emperor Xi and his Brave New China have not yet "restored law and order," in classic CCP style. I don't know the Chinese term for "smash them," but it was one of Mao's favorites. Yet there has been no "smashing" in Hong Kong. Yet.

It's just possible that the mandarins of the Politburo are even more astonished than us. Perhaps they have not acted because they don't know what to do.

It's not as if the Party-state is suffering from "a troubled conscience." Sadly, the Uighurs in western Xinjiang know only too well that New China has no humanitarian scruples. But "The Company" is in the process of negotiating multiple deals all over the world, and Hong Kong is in the global spotlight. That's rather inconvenient for the bosses in Beijing. But it may not be the only thing that perplexes them.

Hong Kong's "Revolution of Our Times" is looking more and more like an unprecedented social upheaval. Though we still try to use them, the old categories for "civil uprisings" are just not adequate to describe all that is happening. The term "police brutality" remains appropriate. As does the term "escalation," although it has a very peculiar dynamic in this case. The heat of events increases slowly (insofar as we can measure) but inexorably. The "non-lethal" force used by the police, along with the refusal of the government to show anything but contempt for the popular movement, are a kind of slow but sustained mass torture of a substantial segment of Hong Kong society. Tear gas is practically becoming part of the atmosphere people breathe every day.

On the other hand, it has become difficult to refer to the vastly diverse but still remarkably cohesive masses of people who have been taking to the streets for the past six months as "protesters" in any ordinary sense of the term. Still, I can't think of any other word for them. There are still many classical protests (such as the recent six month anniversary march that brought out nearly a million people). More and more, however, we see groups resorting to the use of force, not only in self-defense but also — in cases of vandalism and large-scale property damage — as a way to send a message to their pro-Beijing adversaries.

"Non-violence" has long ceased to define the movement. The use of force, however, is controlled and purposeful. People are not targets, and casualties (outside of rare rogue actions) are unintentional and infrequent. The "petrol bombs" are certainly dangerous but they are used primarily to block police advances. Property damage and spray-paint sloganeering are dramatic in their appearance (they are intended to be) but they are relatively restrained.

If these were rioters, they would be burning things down deliberately, causing maximum indiscriminate destruction, and looting on a large scale. Hong Kong people aren't doing any of these things, as far as I know. We have had plenty of riots in the West. We know what riots look like. Hong Kong's street protesters are not rioters. They look like something different. They look like guerrilla warriors with a new style, new strategies, new tactics, a sense of restraint, and a basic respect for human life.

This is a new kind of social movement. Its actions don't correspond to any of the standard classifications.

Still, we can't endorse all their methods. In addition to questions of particular justice, the intensification of force — indeed one could call it "militant" action — without a leadership that can claim political legitimacy will inevitably fragment the movement, coarsen its participants, and engender in them a poisonous hatred of their enemies. Such has been the sad experience of human history.

I am nothing more than a Western intellectual, an interdisciplinary scholar, and a fascinated (but decidedly amateur and poorly informed) "China watcher."  What I am doing here is recording my impressions and ruminating on the news reports. I don't know what's going on, and I don't know what direction it will take. I still STAND WITH HONG KONG. As someone who has no power and who can be nothing other than an observer, however, I can't help but ruminate and worry.

One thing has been made clear. Hong Kong's protest movement is a truly popular movement — it has consistent and proven support among the people of the city. I'm not sure what this support means, or whether it approaches anything like a foundation or beginning of something that might develop into a political mandate. But the most remarkable of the recent events in Hong Kong was the stunning political triumph of pro-democracy candidates in the District Council elections of November 24.

The District Councils are made up of local officials with little real political power. It is precisely for this reason that they are the only officials chosen entirely by popular vote. Understandably, these elections have never generated much interest, with candidates often running unopposed for positions that allow them to participate in decisions like where to put a bus stop in a neighborhood.

But these 452 seemingly insignificant offices took on a powerful symbolism in November of 2019. Pro-democracy forces had been planning for two years to change the complexion of the District Councils, and candidates were lined up to run against the normally uncontested establishment. The elections came after five months of the protest movement. The people of Hong Kong were given this opportunity to make their voices heard at this point. They did more than speak. They roared.

It was the largest election in Hong Kong history, with an unprecedented voter turnout of nearly three million people. There were long lines all day at the polling places all over the territory. The pro-democracy candidates won 388 seats, and 17 out of 18 overall districts. It was a landslide, beyond anyone's dreams. The message of these results is clear:

Source: Wikipedia
Beijing and their minions appear to have been caught entirely off guard. It would have been easy enough to call off these elections, citing the dangers posed by all the "rioters" (the elections, in fact, were entirely peaceful). But they never expected to suffer such a humiliating defeat. Maybe the Chinese Communist Party has actually started to believe its own propaganda. Maybe they expected a hitherto "silent majority" to come out and rally behind the government and the police.

They got a big surprise. It's difficult to predict what they will make of it.

Meanwhile, the protest goes on. We are watching history unfold.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Saint John of the Cross

Juan de la Cruz died 428 years ago today, at the age of 49.

Like so many genuine reformers, he never imagined how great the fruit of his labors and sufferings would be for the whole Church. His entire focus was on following Jesus and being faithful to the mysterious transforming love of God.

Friday, December 13, 2019

For Christmas: More Thoughts on Music, Creativity, and Media

As the Christmas season approaches, people increasingly "fill their homes" with special music that helps them prepare for and celebrate the joy of Christ's birth and that stirs up the aspirations of human benevolence embodied in various family and cultural traditions of the season.

I hope that this time of year (and other times too) allows us to experience music in its most intimate, personal form (wherein is also found its most powerful capacity to build bonds with others): what I am referring to, of course, is SINGING, and in particular singing together. We should make the most of the upcoming opportunities to sing with our own voices (as best we can) in our churches and at other holiday gatherings. Singing together can be done with great simplicity, if we listen to one another even as we contribute our own vocal resonance. We give and receive within a multi-sensory communal experience that expresses a profound symbol of the whole dynamic of living-together in community.

So don't be shy. We all have music in our souls. Sing!

In common singing, whether as a congregation or in an informal gathering, there are "rules" we follow together, given by the songs themselves, by those who are serving as leaders, and the particular circumstances of the gathering. We should also remember that communal singing is not a contest. It's not the time for individuals to show off their special talents or vie to see who can sing the loudest. As we sing, we ought to be able to listen to the voices of those next to us.

This kind of singing together is not something we do for the sake of "performance," and no one should feel intimidated by a lack of technical skill. Everyone has something they can contribute, something that originates in the heart and soul and emerges as resonant sound from the primordial, multifaceted "musical instrument" that is the human body. If someone doesn't know the words to a song, they can hum softly; if they don't know the tune, they can listen and then perhaps hum the first note of each verse, or even just follow the rhythm softly with a shoe or (depending on the song and the context) clapping hands. There is a personal value to "joining in" to the music in whatever way we can (without disrupting or hindering others in the group).

I do think it's a good thing for everyone to have a "basic musical education" along with the standard educational objectives of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Music and song are akin to language, and in some respects surpass it. In any case they are basic to the enrichment of the human experience.

It's hard to imagine Christmas without music and song.

Of course, most of us enjoy listening to music, and there are many wonderful live concerts this time of year. And throughout the season many of us listen to "Christmas music" that is prerecorded by professional singers and musicians. We like to turn to music that has been developed and presented as a fine art, in various styles, genres, and levels of proficiency. It's natural to appreciate the art of music and the artists who make music, but this appreciation is also an aptitude that can be more deeply engaged by being broadened, cultivated, and educated. This is more important than ever in today's world, where music is crafted and made available to us in unprecedented ways.

We take for granted all the complex media technology that brings music to us on the radio, digital streaming, recordings, and videos. There are many possibilities for enrichment in these media. But there is the danger that so much "thoughtless" access to "easy music" might render dull and superficial our musical sensibility. When music is exclusively defined and commodified as "entertainment," a cycle of degeneration ensues: listeners become less active appreciators and more passive spectacle-seekers, and artists tend to abandon their creative intuition in order to conform to the (profit-driven) constraints of making a fashionable and trendy (but more ephemeral) "show."

The banality of so much popular music has as much to do with our laziness as listeners as it does with the manipulative habits of a music "industry" dominated by superficial trends.

No doubt this has always more-or-less been true about music, given the perennially ambivalent tendencies of being human. But the explosion of technological power has "expanded" the scope of everything that involves human interaction with the material world (some would say "overstretched," but I don't think this is always or necessarily the case — my ongoing analysis of these issues is outlined in other articles and posts). What is remarkable is that, in the midst of all the pressures, real musical creativity finds ways of prevailing and surprising us with new expressions of beauty.

If you've read this far, you might feel like you're being forced to overthink your favorite Christmas playlists or CDs. Haha, you should have known better!😉

I have in fact moved a bit beyond the immediate topic. But since the universally evocative and participatory nature of music is particularly evident at Christmas, I feel that it is appropriate to make a few notes about the broader questions as I continue to probe (in a plodding fashion) the significance of communications media as well as the complex aesthetics of music. (Click HERE to read "Part 1" in this ongoing series wherein I sketch out various musicological ideas.🎶)

There is something fascinating about the various ways music can "come to be" as an intentionally crafted entity, a "work of art." Unlike a painting or sculpture, a musical composition is presented again and again through a distinct artistic activity which is music performance. Even if the composer is also the performer, these are distinct aspects of artistic creativity. Media technology has served to highlight these distinctions, and to develop new aspects of the creative process which can be appreciated in their own right but which also need to be continually refined and incorporated within the musical craft, so that they enhance (rather than cheapen) the artistic quality of the music.

For thousands of years, the live performance itself was the only "artifact" that the instrumentalist or singer "made" — and it existed as an audible reality only when it was performed. Styles of playing and sometimes even a repertoire of musical "works" were passed on person-to-person, through listening and acquiring the craft of performing.

The development of written musical notation expanded the possibilities of sharing music in larger circles, with the potential for a greater "distance" between composers and performers. Music sheets could be hand copied and distributed, and certain songs or forms of music were standardized over regions or within institutions.

Then, there was a technological explosion in media, which in some ways remains the most revolutionary event in the history of communications. The multiplication of human communication (including the content of musical composition) became, at least in principle, limitless. An invention appeared that caused a massive expansion in human power. It came suddenly, and with implications no one could have imagined at the time. It changed the world.

The invention was the printing press.

(Just look at how much we take for granted, everybody!)

The Print Revolution is a topic for another paper, but suffice it to say that for music it became the vehicle for the rise of the composer as a distinctive artist, who could print and distribute his own original music to multiple ensembles of music performers in faraway places, and this distribution could continue long after the composer's death. The composition became an art form, and eventually its complexity and originality blossomed in many directions.

Thus began the novelty that we call, ironically, "Classical Music"!

During the past one hundred and fifty or so years we have had a lot more technological expansion. We have had a blizzard of technological expansion. It has had an enormous impact on music, and the task of fashioning beauty (not to mention the new kinds of artists who participate in the process) is still in an early and rather chaotic stage of development. (This is one reason why I "cut lots of slack" for the efforts of musicians — another reason being that, as a musician myself, I have personal experience in the difficult struggles of this project).

One rather well-established development is certainly worthy of note. Recording technology has opened a whole new dimension of music as an art form. It has given a much-deserved new focus to music performers (distinct from composers) as artists in their own right. It has now become possible for performers to make an "audible thing" that has an "accessibility" and a "permanence" analogous to a painting or sculpture. At the same time, it has expanded the possibilities for the composer to distribute audio performances of his or her work.

Then there are the "technicians" whose responsibility is to perfect the transmission of music to the recording. In the beginning, most of them were focused on the science, the practical engineering involved in making the product. Yet it became increasingly clear that aesthetic sensibility was also crucial to appreciating the finer points of how the recording should "sound." As recording production became more sophisticated, the producer began to be more distinguished as an artist who collaborates in the project of making this distinctive work of art: recorded music. 

Digital technology has continued to expand this role, so that today there are certain types of music constructed entirely of electronically generated sounds that can be arranged and recorded by a single person. Some have practiced this technologically demiurgic musical solitude, but it has already proven to be a lonely burden. Music is diffusive. The work of making music involves an urge to be shared. Thus it's not surprising that digital technology in music is being used to generate new possibilities for all kinds of collective activity, bringing diverse new players from all over the world together in a process which, as I said before, can be chaotic.

The CD is still provides the highest quality for listening 
As we keep an "ear" on what emerges from all this creative ferment, it's important to acknowledge that the art of recorded music today can achieve an unprecedented level of superiority that not only contributes to the accessibility of music but even has a "beauty" of its own. Like all forms of excellence, it is not common, but it can be found.

Just to bring these reflections to an end, let us note that your favorite Christmas recording — even when it is commercially attributed to one artist — is a collaborative achievement of many artists who each contribute their own creativity and skill.

Perhaps we all should become more attentive and appreciative listeners.

And whether or not all this technology dissipates and fractures musical art or opens new integrated and cooperative possibilities for it depends in part on our ability to listen to the music that is created and discern the beauty of the whole (in its various forms, and diverse "levels" of analogical coherence). Learning to express music ourselves is one way to deepen our capacity to listen. That expression still begins in a fundamental human place, the human body.

So go ahead and sing this Christmas. Or tap, or hum, or participate — somehow — in the music. You won't regret it!