Archive for the ‘Catholicism’ Category

The Birth of the Nativity Scene

12 December, 2011

The Nativity scene is one of the most cherished remnants of the Christian celebration of Christmas, which is increasingly eclipsed by pagan and secular trappings in our modern, materialistic culture. From live manger scenes with farm and exotic animals to miniature figurines in a moss-covered stable to electric-lighted plastic lawn sets, the contemporary Nativity scene has a long and interesting history dating back to the first commemorations of Christ’s birth in the 3rd and 4th century.

Though the beautiful narrative of Christ’s nativity appears in the gospels of Saints Matthew and Luke, His birth was not widely celebrated nor did it enter the liturgical cycle until the 3rd or 4th century. Ancient Christians were more inclined to focus on the Epiphany, the arrival of the Magi, than the birth of Christ. In his Homilies on Leviticus, Origen, a 2nd century theologian, remarked that “only sinners” marked the day of their birth, citing evil rulers like the Egyptian pharaoh and Herod as examples of vain birthday celebrations. In fact, rather than celebrate birth, it was the tradition of the Church to commemorate the deaths of martyrs and Christian faithful with feast days, so it is not surprising that the Nativity of Christ was unremarked in the earliest centuries of the Faith.

Depictions of the Nativity of the Divine Child appear during the period when the Church first began to widely observe the feast of Christ’s birth on December 25th. The earliest examples are relief sculptures on sarcophagi in Rome and Gaul. They generally show a swaddled baby surrounded by ox and ass, a common motif based on Isaiah 1:3: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib. . .” Some depict the Bethlehem star, the Virgin Mary, the shepherds or Magi and, less often, Joseph. (“Nativity (in Art)“ 1380). The first documented usage of the Nativity in worship occurred in 4th Century Rome at the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where a Christian shrine included boards traditionally associated with the manger which held the Christ Child. One of the three Christmas masses at the basilica was titled Ad Praesepe, or “to the crib” (“Nativity Scene” 407).

Though there are other artistic representations of Christ’s birth carved in ivory, mosaic, and even gems, the modern Nativity scene used in worship, and later in homes, is a direct descendant of a live Nativity conceptualized by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223. Francis received papal approval to celebrate a Christmas mass in the first living Nativity scene, which was erected in a cave at Greccio where a local lord, Giovanni di Velita, had given Francis space for a small hermitage. There, Francis installed a wooden manger with straw. Following earlier iconographic tradition, a live ox and ass were also provided to complete the simple scene. At midnight, worshipers came with torches and lanterns, and a priest conducted a mass over the empty, straw-strewn crib. The spiritual celebration was ecstatically received and represented an innovative and contemplative enhancement of the Midnight Mass (Greene 242-243). The Franciscan Nativity was soon adapted throughout Europe and took on a high level of pageantry and celebration. In French and Italian villages costumed villagers made procession to live Nativities and in some cases brought gifts and offerings to present to the Holy Child, a surrogate for Holy Church. By the sixteenth century, many European churches in France, Germany, and Italy annually reenacted the presepio (crib scene) at Christmas and Epiphany (“Nativity Scene” 408).

In the seventeenth century, versions of the Christmas scene began to appear in homes, some mere folk art and others more developed. In eighteenth century Naples, families competed to construct the most intricate and ostentatious Nativity scenes, which expanded far beyond the Holy Family to include villagers, angels, and elaborate scenery, some boasting working waterfalls or erupting volcanoes. Wealthy Neapolitans sometimes hired professional artists to paint scenery, sculpt heads or create extravagant bejeweled clothing for the figures (“Nativity Scene” 409).

In 1803, the first known portable Nativity set appeared at a Christmas fair in Marseille, France. The small clay figurines represented the usual characters from the biblical account (Mary, Joseph, Jesus, angels, shepherds, and Magi) but also included a variety of tradespeople such as a baker, fishmonger, mayor and others. When French migrants came to Canada, they began the tradition of placing the sets beneath the branches of a Christmas tree (“Nativity Scene” 409).

In England and the American Colonies, Christmas celebrations suffered under the ascetic regulations of the Puritans, who outlawed Christmas commemorations, along with other “Holy-dayes” in June 1647, claiming they had been “superstitiously used and observed” (Grapel 26). The Nativity set, then, did not arrive in America until the eighteenth century, when German Moravian immigrants brought the strong European tradition with them (“Nativity Scene” 411).

In modern times, the Nativity scene is a staple of Christmas commemoration and pageantry. Controversy often surrounds the display of the Gospel tableau in public spaces such as courthouse lawns and schoolyards. Political pundits postulate about the impact on the separation of Church and State, and religious bigots harp about the affront to tolerance and diversity. However, through the efforts of tenacious Christian celebrants, the scenes persist from elegant, artistic representations to live reenactments to kitschy lawn ornaments. The simple scene of St. Francis in the small Italian hermit’s chapel is now a fixture of the Faith. This year remember that each crèche, whether grand or humble, is rooted in ancient Christian worship and reminds us of the divine loftiness and incarnated lowliness of the Blessed Divine Child, Jesus Christ.

Sources:

Grapel, William. Church’s Holy-Days the Only Safeguard Against the Desecration of the Lord’s Day. London: Joseph Masters, 1848.

Green, Julien. God’s Fool: the Life and Times of Francis of Assisi. Trans. Peter Heinegg. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.

“Nativity (in Art).” A Dictionary of Christian Antiquities. Eds. William Smith and Samuel Cheetham. Vol 2. 1880. Print.

“Nativity Scene.” Encyclopedia of Christmas. Ed. Tanya Gulevich. 2000. Print.

Revisiting the Upper Room

30 November, 2009

‘And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room . . . ‘ (Acts 1:13)

The Day of Pentecost marks the birth of the apostolic Church of the New Testament. According to the Lukan narrative in the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Ghost swept into the Upper Room where the disciples abode and where the disciples gathered with the female followers and relatives of Christ, including His mother. In this sacred space, cloven tongues of fire appeared above those who tarried for the Father’s promise, and they were filled with the Holy Ghost, speaking in other tongues. In this dramatic moment, the everlasting Church was established, and the Upper Room became one of the most hallowed sites of Christianity.

Today, pilgrims and tourists daily fill a 45’ x 29.5 ‘Gothic room built in the 14th century to commemorate the descent of the Spirit following Christ’s resurrection. In Catholic tradition the Upper Room is known as the Cenacle, derived from a Latin word for dining and is believed to be the site of the Last Supper and the place where the Apostles gathered and lived. As such, the ancient building that stood in the chapel’s place was the site of many of the most important events in the Gospel, including the washing of the disciples’ feet, the appearance of Christ after His resurrection, and the ratification of Matthias as a replacement for Judas Iscariot (Meagher 232). The Upper Room is hailed as the epicenter of formative Christianity and the worldwide revival that emanated from the initial descent of the Holy Ghost in Acts 2.1-4.

Eusebius (d. 339), who chronicled early Christian history, is credited with identifying the site as the “Holy Church of God.” In his Catechetical Lectures, Cyril (d. 386) called the building “the Upper Church of the Apostles.” Epiphanus (d. 403), who was Bishop of Caesarea, said that the small church survived the decimating attacks of Titus and Hadrian on Jerusalem. Theodosius called the Cenacle “mater omnium ecclesarium,” the “Mother of all Churches.”

Following the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., it was St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, who went to Jerusalem in an effort to rediscover the ancient Christian landmarks. Under her direction, the Cenacle was purified and consecrated, and masses were said in the small church (Meagher 233). In 350 A.D., the church was restored; and in 390, a large basilica known as Hagia Sion (Holy Zion) was erected nearby (Lussier 332-333). The traditional Upper Room became a cathedral and flourished until 636 A.D., when Jerusalem was overtaken by the Moslem invaders. Omar, cousin of the Mohammed, negotiated with the Jerusalem Christians and allowed them to retain the Cenacle as a church, but the influence of Christianity was stymied by the Moslem occupancy (Meagher 233).

When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, they found the Upper Room and Holy Zion in ruins. A Romanesque structure was erected at the site of the basilica, but this was again destroyed by invaders when the Sultan of Damascus conquered Jerusalem in 1219 (Lussier 332-333).

In 1342, the Franciscans were granted perpetual custody of the Cenacle by a papal bull issued by Clement VI. The order erected the present Gothic chapel. Interestingly, during the Byzantine period, it became popularly believed that King David was also entombed at the site of the Upper Room. When the occupying Moslems learned of the tradition, Suliman the Magnificent, hastily ejected the Franciscans, an effort to protect the sacred soil of David’s bones. In a missal to the Governor of Damascus, he wrote:

By the receipt of this august and imperial sign, know that by the request addressed to our Sublime Porte we have been made aware that near to the noble city of Jerusalem there is the tomb of the Prophet David . . . and that the convent and church of Mount Sion, possessed and inhabited by the religious Franks, are next to the tomb. The latter, in making the processions required by their false beliefs, cross the earth, which covers the tomb of the Prophet David—may peace be upon him. It is neither just nor appropriate that this most noble place remain in the hands of the infidels, and that in obedience to their impious customs, their feet foul the places sanctified by the prophets who have a right to our complete veneration. We order, then, upon receipt of this august order, that you expel from the church and convent immediately and without delay the religious and all those who reside there. (qtd. in Cunliffe 105)

For a time, Franciscans were still allowed to live in a nearby house but were finally evicted in 1551. In 1936, the Franciscans were permitted to return to a monastery near the Cenacle, but they evacuated during the conflicts of 1948. In 1960, they regained occupancy of both the monastery and the Cenacle, which had been badly damaged by mortar fire and continue as custodians of the structure today (Lussier 332-333).

Though the biblical site of the Upper Room described in Acts 2 is in some doubt, the legacy of that sacred space is unquestionable. Whether the Spirit fell in the exact location of today’s Franciscan chapel or on another Jerusalem tract, we know that the chamber where the 120 followers of the resurrected Christ gathered became the birthing room of the invincible Apostolic Church. With rushing wind and cloven tongues of fire, the Jerusalem saints were baptized with the Spirit. The tourist experience of standing in a place that may have been the point of that first Pentecostal visitation pales in comparison to the Upper Room experience recreated in countless lives as the miracle of Pentecost is repeated in the seeking souls and the believing hearts of the faithful. Every time we witness the outpouring of God’s Spirit, evidenced by speaking in tongues, we return to the Upper Room and relive the seminal moment when the Holy Ghost first empowered the Church with the enflaming presence of the Comforter and began the spiritual conflagration that now engulfs the globe in end-time revival! The authenticity of the Cenacle is in dispute but the authenticity of the Apostolic experience is incontrovertible.

Sources:

Cunliffe, Barry, ed. Oxford Archaeological Guides: the Holy Land. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Germano, Michael P. “The Ancient Church of the Apostles: Revisiting Jerusalem’s Cenacle and David’s Tomb.” Biblical Archaeology.

Lussier, E. “Cenacle.” New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 332-333. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale. Ball State University. 9 Nov. 2009 <http://go.galegroup.com/ps/start.do?p=GVRL&u=munc80314&gt;.

Meagher, James. How Christ Said the First Mass, or the Lord’s Last Supper. New York: Christian Press Association Publishing Company, 1908.

From Convent to Convert: Sis. Charlotte Keckler’s Remarkable Testimony

4 July, 2007

She signed the documents in her own red blood, vows of chastity, crucial poverty, and obedience. She would never marry, own property, or disobey Church authority. Charlotte Keckler was a young woman who loved God and believed that her decision to join a Carmelite convent and serve Christ and humanity behind the closed doors of a nunnery would save she and her family. She could not have imagined the hardships and absolute terror that awaited her. The life that she innocently believed to be spiritual and sacred she found to be perverse and profane. Controlled and even enslaved by a corrupt Church and an unholy hierarchy, Charlotte spent over two decades in inhumane conditions, struggling to survive. Her story, From Convent to Pentecost, was transcribed from her own words, by Sister Eunilah Rutledge Mean, a United Pentecostal Church evangelist and pastor. It is a testimony of a nun who was miraculously delivered from the captivity of the Roman Church and found true Bible salvation.
Charlotte was reared in a devoutly Catholic home and entered the convent school at age thirteen. At sixteen, she became a novitiate, officially dedicating her life to the Church in a wedding ceremony where she was espoused to Jesus Christ. The Mother Superior, impressed with Charlotte’s devotion, suggested that she consider entering the cloister, shutting herself away from the world to pray for lost humanity. After much prayer and persuasion from the superior and her confessor, Charlotte took her perpetual vows, vows that could never be broken. Diametrically different from the white wedding of her novitiation, Charlotte, renamed Sister Patricia, spent hours in a crude casket, shrouded in a thick, incensed pall, ritualistically symbolizing her death to the outside world (Rutledge 9-10).
Life inside the cloister is the stuff of horror novels. Charlotte recounts gruesome and incredible atrocities committed against and even by the nuns. Mother Superior, whom she dubs “Legion”, is a wicked artificer of cruel tortures and unreasonable punishments (41). The nuns, who are constantly reminded of Christ’s suffering, bear their own Calvary, shedding their blood and stretching their bodies to the limits of human endurance. Charlotte herself was variously mistreated being hung from ropes for nine days in a penitential chamber, only offered bread and water for sustenance. She was made to lick the sign of the cross on filthy floors, burned with a fire poker, and temporarily blinded by some chemical concoction thrown in her face by the abbess (44-45; 92-93). She describes deplorable conditions in an underground dungeon where some nuns suffered and even died. Each year during the Lenten season, leading up to Easter, Charlotte describes a macabre ritual of human sacrifice, thinly disguised as Christian martyrdom:
. . . a glass casket was rolled into the center of the chapel (one flight underground). While the ceremony was performed, amidst chanting and prayers, a little Nun was then sealed and pushed back into the crypt in the wall. However, before the casket was placed into the crypt, we Nuns were allowed to look on that martyr through the glass lid. (Rutledge 28)
The convent perpetuated evil, appealing to the most godless and twisted perversion of Christ’s death.
Most disturbing is Charlotte’s claims about murders. Disobedient nuns were often killed or imprisoned in the subterranean dungeon until dead. Abnormal, illegitimate babies, sired by lecherous priests who visited the convent, were also murdered after receiving the rite of baptism. Charlotte describes a lime pit where bodies were taken for chemical treatment and decomposition.
For corroboration, Charlotte cites The History of Puebla, a book which includes details about the opening of Mexican cloisters by the government. The discoveries made by Mexican detectives and officials in the 1930s, revealed an underworld of torture, imprisonment and death for nuns, illegitimate babies, and errant priests. Many other published tales of escape nuns in the nineteenth century lend credence to her story. Edith O’Gorman, who escaped a New Jersey convent in 1868, told of underground dungeons, sexual impropriety, and licking floors for penance. A British nun, Sister Lucy (Ann Cullen) published tales of her experience after escaping from an English convent, detailing drunken parties by priests, flagellation with chains, and dubbing these nunneries “sacerdotal harems” (Kollar 207-209). Father Charles Chiniquy, who spent 50 years as a Roman Catholic priest, and demonstrated sincere and honest fervency for his Catholic faith, eventually left and became a Protestant. His writings reveal a good deal about the characters of his fellow priests. He describes a meeting of Catholic clerics: “Some were handing the bottles from bed to bed . . . but half an hour had not elapsed before the alcohol was beginning to unloose tongues and upset the brains. Then the bon mots, the witty stories, at first, were soon followed by the most indecent and shameful recitals.” The drunkenness continued each night: “One night three priests were taken with delirium tremens almost at the same time. One cried out that he had a dozen rattle-snakes at his shirt . . . ” (Chiniquy 421). Modern accounts of the vilest corruption in the Church of Rome are ubiquitous; and even now, the sexual scandals that plague the Church are regularly reported in the media.
Miraculously, Sister Charlotte escaped from the convent. Through the treachery of her own family, she was kidnapped and returned to another. Under the direction of the new Mother Superior, she was burned with a plumber’s torch until she recanted for fleeing her former station (Rutledge 169). Over two years later, doing hard penance, Charlotte was providentially presented with another opportunity for escape when a gate was left unlocked after a delivery of coal. She fled again-this time for good (Rutledge 175).
God, who recognized Charlotte’s hunger for Him, eventually brought her into contact with Apostolic believers. In March 1945, Sis. Charlotte Keckler was gloriously filled with the Holy Ghost in a revival meeting preached by Sis. Nilah Rutledge in Davenport, Iowa. She was baptized in Jesus’ Name at the close of the revival (Rutledge 194-195). This inspired encounter launched Sis. Keckler’s ministry, and she traveled alongside Sis. Rutledge giving her testimony of God’s deliverance from convent life for the next 14 years. In 1957, Sis. Rutledge met and married Bro. John Mean, who has served as a United Pentecostal Church District Superintendent in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland for over 26 years. Sis. Charlotte continued to travel with the Means for two years following their marriage. In a recent telephone conversation, Bro. Mean described the Catholic opposition that Sis. Keckler met with during her meetings. The team began a revival meeting in Trenton, Nova Scotia. Sis. Charlotte’s testimony incited bitter protests from priests and the Catholic faithful in Antigonish, a nearby city. A mob came out with stones to attack Sis. Keckler, and the Chief of Police from a neighboring city, New Glasgow, promised police protection if they would move the revival to their town. The revival venue was changed, and deputies were placed at the meetings to protect the evangelists (Interview).
Sis. Charlotte Keckler’s message provides us with an astonishing look at the evils perpetrated in the name of the Catholic faith. While her experiences may be exceptional, they are not unique. Sis. Keckler used the pain of her past to create an effective ministry. Bro. T.F. Tenney, former District Superintendent of Louisiana, visited a Pentecostal service for the first time to hear Sis. Keckler’s incredible story. Her deliverance is nothing short of miraculous, and the book faithfully preserves the overcoming word of her testimony. She died in September 1983 at the age of 85, a faithful member of Bro. Paul Price’s church in Napa, California. Her story was never discredited, though many have tried. Bro. John Mean says: “She was a genuine lady, and a very beautiful person. She never misrepresented her cause” (Interview). Sis. Keckler is undoubtedly beholding the face of the Saviour that she longed to know when she entered the convent. She has now laid down the pain of her incomprehensible sufferings, for eternal life in Christ, not the Catholic Christ who necessitated such awful tortures, but the God of eternal love and blessed comfort!

Works Cited:

Chiniquy, Charles Fr. Fifty Years in the Church of Rome. London: Robert Banks & Son, 1891.

Kollar, Rene. “An American ‘Escaped Nun’ on Tour in England: Edith O’Gorman’s Critique of Convent Life.” Feminist Theology: the journal of Britain and Ireland School of Feminist Theology 14 (2) 2006, pp. 205-220.

Rutledge, Nilah. From Convent to Pentecost: My Escape from the Cloistered Convent. Halifax, NS: Rose of Sharon Books, 1999.