Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Feast of St. Nicholas, December 6, 2005

The Figure of St. Nicholas:
"Tradition has always equated Santa Claus with the Bishop Nicholas who participated in the Council of Nicaea and, together with that first great assembly of bishops, helped to formulate the affirmation of the true divinity of Jesus Christ. What was at stake here was the core of Christianity, whether Christianity was to become just another sect or something really new, faith in the Incarnation of God himself. Was Jesus of Nazareth only a great religious man, or had God himself actually become, in him, one of us? So, ultimately, the question was this: Is God so mighty that he can make himself small; is he so mighty that he can love us and really enter our lives? For if God is too far away from us to love us effectively, then human love too is only an empty promise. If God cannot love, how can man be expected to do so? In professing faith in God's Incarnation, therefore, it was ultimately a case of affirming also man's capacity to live and die in a human manner. The figure of St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, illustrates and symbolizes this connection....
"Nicholas is one of the first people to be venerated as a saint withouit having been a martyr. During the persecution of Christians, those who opposed the pagan state power and gave their lives for their faith had quite automatically become great examples of faith. When peace was concluded between Church and state, people needed new models. Nicholas impressed them as one ready to help others. His miracle was not that of great heroism in the face of torture, imprisonment and death. It is the miracle of constant kindness in everyday life.
"Another of the legends expresses it very beautrifully in this way: Whereas all the other miracles could be performed by magicians and demons, and thus were ambivalent, one miracle was absolutely transparent and could not involve any deception, namely, that of living out the faith in everyday life for an entire lifetime and maintaining charity. People in the fourth century experienced this miracle in the life of Nicholas, and all the miracle stories which accrued subsequently to the leged are only variations on this one, fundamental miracle, which Nicholas' contemporaries compared, with wonder and gratitude, to the morning star reflecting the radiance of the light of Christ. In this man they understood what faith in God's Incarnation means; in him the dogma of Nicaea had been translated into tangible terms" (Josef Ratzinger, Seek That Which is Above Ignatius [1986] 20-22).
The anecdotal consists in Nicholas' provident amassing of doweries for unmarriageable women. But it all comes down to the meaning of the Incarnation as self gift, and therefore, the human person. As we shall see, John Paul II makes it clear that, pace the absolute right to private property by the work of subduing creation, whatever becomes private property must be poured back into the work process to serve others, and this because the working person must be gift to the others by the very title of being person in the image of the Incarnate God. "Property is acquired first of all through work in order that it may serve work. This concerns in a special way ownership of the means of production. Isolating these means as a separate property in order to set it up in the form of `capital' in opposition to `labor' - and even to practice exploitation of labor - is contrary to the very nature of these means and their possession. The cannot possessed against labor, they cannot even be possessed for possession's sake, because the only legitimate title to their possession -whether in the form of private ownership or in the form of public or collective ownership - is that they should serve labor,, and thus by serving labor, that they should make possible the achievement of the first principle of this order, namely, the universal destination of goods and the right to common use of them" (Laborem Exercens #14). Hence, the principle:

Having and Being: Man is worth more for what he is than for what he has! – or - how can one live the virtue of the poverty of Jesus Christ in the middle of secular society earning a living wage?

a) Poverty does not consist in the extrinsic state of not having things. Rather, it consists in the interior attitude of self-gift. This is the priesthood of Jesus Christ.[1] God took no pleasure heartless external sacrifices: “What care I for the number of your sacrifices?” says the Lord. “I have had enough of wholeburnt rams and fat of fatlings; in the blood of calves, lambs and goats I find no pleasure.”[2] St. Paul says, “But when Christ appeared as high priest… he entered once for all through the greater and ore perfect tabernacle, not made by hands [the temple]… nor again by virtue of blood of goats and calves, but by virtue of his own blood, into the Holies, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkled ashes of a heifer sanctify the unclean unto the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the Holy Spirit offered himself unblemished unto God…” (Heb. 9, 11-14). And again, “But as it is, once for all at the end of the ages, he has appeared for the destruction of sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9, 26).

b) The metaphysical anthropology of poverty is the following: “property is acquired first of all through work in order that it may serve work. This concerns in a special way ownership of the means of production. Isolating these means as a separate property in order to set it up in the form of `capital’ in opposition to `labor’ – and even to practice exploitation of labor – is contrary to the very nature of these means and their possession. They cannot be possessed against labor, they cannot even be possessed for possession’s sake, because the only legitimate title to their possession –whether in the form of private ownership or in the form of public or collective ownership – is that they should serve labor, and thus, by serving labor, that they should make possible the achievement of the first principle of this order, namely, the universal destination of goods and the right to common use of them.”[3]

This is an instantiation of Christian anthropology, i.e., “man, the only earthly being God has willed for itself, finds himself, by the sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes #24). One gains private property by subduing the earth. And since the human person was taken from the slime of the earth, he must subdue himself and so as to own himself by becoming master of self. Work, then, has this subjective dimension, namely, that subduing the earth presupposes this subjective subduing and giving of self in obedience to the divine command to, say, till the garden and name the animals. The self-transcendence of obedience takes place in this anthropology of work, and in this crossing of the threshold from the experience of being object (rational animal) to subject (“I”), the likeness to the divine Persons takes place. And with it, the experience of not being “like” the rest of creation that is “thing.” The “original solitude,” the divine assessment that it is "not good” for man to be alone with the consequent creation of sexuality as male and female ensues, etc., etc. But the key point is that the person and all that accrues to the person as personal property because of work must become gift for the person to flourish as person. Hence, the conclusion imposes itself on everyone. No one can own anything-for-self. John Paul II said, “Private property… is under a `social mortgage’…”[4] because the human person (imaging the divine Persons) is under a “social mortgage.” Nothing for self! We are all administrators! He goes on:

“The Church’s social doctrine is not a `third way’ between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism, nor even a possible alternative to other solutions less radically opposed to one another: rather, it constitutes a category of its own. Nor is it an ideology, but rather the accurate formulation of the results of a careful reflection on the complex realities of human existence, in society and in the international order, in the light of faith and of the church’s tradition. Its main aim is to interpret these realities, determining their conformity with or divergence from the lines of the Gospel teaching on man and his vocation, a vocation which is at once earthly and transcendent; its aim is thus to guide Christian behavior. It therefore belongs to the field, not of ideology, but of theology and particularly of moral theology.”[5]

St. Nicholas in the Spirit and History of Opus Dei:

Getting down to the quotidian details, one of the spiritual children of St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, once remarked:

“The Father expected a lot of us in living poverty: making good use of time; lights always turned off when they were not needed; carefully planned purchases, made where they offered the best prices; not wasting food or leftover pieces of cloth or thumbtacks, nails or anything useful in making repairs. We saw how he got the most out of his own clothing – his cassocks, his overcoat (more patches than original cloth) – and of the sheets of paper he wrote on; and how he tried to keep our few pieces of furniture from getting too much sunlight. We were moved to want to learn how to live this virtue in detail.”[6]

Historically, St. Josemaria named St. Nicholas of Bari as patron of Opus Dei financial affairs: “Despite these efforts, by December the financial situation was becoming desperate. As Escriva prepared to celebrate Mass on December 6, [1934] the feast of St. Nicolas of Bari, who is known for solving economic problems, he challenged the saint to resolve DYA’ financial crisis, `If you get me out of this one, I’ll name you patron of the economic affairs of the Work.’ As he left the sacristy, he repented and added, `and even if you don’t.’”[7]

Coverdale continues: “On March 13, 1935, Escriva sent a petition to the archbishop of Madrid, explaining the spiritual activities that were being held in the residence and asking for permission to establish a semi-public oratory where Mass could be said and the Blessed Sacrament reserved. He hoped to celebrate Mass for the first time in the oratory on Sunday, March 31, 1935m but they still lacked many essential items. Toward the end of March, a distinguished-looking bearded gentleman, wearing an old-fashioned Spanish cape, anonymously left a package containing everything they needed. Escriva said the benefactor might have been a friend of his, Alejandro Guzman, but the residents said, half-jokingly and half-seriously, that it must have been St. Nicholas or St. Joseph. They mentioned St. Joseph because Escriva had been asking them to pray incessantly to him for the gift of Eucharistic bread, prefigured in the Old Testament by the bread that Joseph distributed to the Egyptians at the Pharaoh’s order.”[8]

On two other significant projects, the first (Villa Tevere) and second (Cavabianca) sites of the Roman College of the Holy Cross for the “roman” formation of future directors and priests, Escriva had recourse to the saint:

Re: Villa Tevere: “With an eye to the financial difficulties, the Father made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Saint Nicholas of Bari, in southern Italy, on July 6, 1954. Saint Nicholas, as we recall, was Opus Dei’s intercessor for financial matters, and the founder had had recourse to him in the midst of the material difficulties involved in setting up the first centers of the Work in Madrid.
In the following year, 1955, the founder met Leonardo Castelli, a hardworking and very generous man who had become good friends with Don Alvaro, and who had a family construction company. He proved to be the person that the Father was looking for – not to him things as gifts, but to provide the minimal support needed to keep the construction work going. This good businessman, besides offering him credit and deferments of payments, gave him the benefit of his professional services.”

Re: Cavabianca: “`In Rome, very close to Villa Tevere (which also needs some touching up, since we did it in a big hurry), we decided to acquire a few acres, and there is being built there a house for over three hundred `birds.’ Bishops from all over the world come to see me, and they say to me, `But you are crazy…’ And I answer them, `I am sane as can be. When you have birds and you don’t have a birdcage, what you need is a birdcage. I need to form there – keeping them there for one, two, three years at the most – my intellectual children from all over the world.’
“Some churchmen, on hearing him speak of the project and all it involved, tried to dissuade him. Such an ambitious enterprise seemed very crazy indeed, especially given the severe crises there were among Catholics in all countries. How did he expect to maintain and fill those buildings? It was surely a folly. He had to be making a big mistake.
“The Father was the first to admit it. The project was a real folly – but an exemplary and necessary folly. So he never considered going back on it.
“On December 6, 1971, when the work had been going on for a year, the Father asked the architects to pray to Saint Nicholas for a solution to the financial problem. Also, he told them that the work had to be finished by three years from that day.
“But obstacles arose, some foreseen, but others unexpected. These included impediments of a technical and bureaucratic nature: labor strikes; sudden increases in the costs of materials… All of this in years of social instability, trade-union tensions, kidnappings, and large-scale terrorism. More than one friend suggested to him that it might be better to give up the project at Cavabianca and build somewhere other than Rome, perhaps even in some other country. But he felt it necessary to go ahead with Cavabianca, for a spiritual reason: its `Romanness’ was a guarantee of unity and apostolic effectiveness…
“Torreciudad and Cavabianca were two follies of love, carried out at the same time. Both gave expression to the Father’s love for souls and devotion to our Lady. Both were founded on magnanimity and poverty, and begun with hope. Both were carried out with great care, down to the last detail, and were completed with constancy and sacrifice.
“One day the Father was speaking with his sons about Cavabianca, and, as he often did, he referred to it as his `next-to-last folly.’ And when someone asked him, `What will the last one be?’ he replied, `To Die on time.’…”

* * * * * * * *

P.s. “Tribal peoples usually distinguish between gifts and capital. Commonly they have a law that repeats the sensibility implicit in the idea of an Indian gift. `One man’s gift,’ they say, `must not be another man’s capital.’ Wendy James, a British social anthropologist, tells us that among the Uduk in northeast Africa, `any wealth transferred from one subclan to another, whether animals, grain or money, is in the nature of a gift, and should be consumed, and not invested for growth. If such transferred wealth is added to the subclan’s capital [cattle in this case] and kept for growth and investment, the subclan is regarded as being in an immoral relation of debt to the donors of the original gift.’ If a pair of goats received as a gift from another subclan is kept to breed or to buy cattle, `there will be general complaint that the so-and-so’s are getting rich at someone else’s expense, behaving immorally by hoarding and investing gifts, and therefore being in a state of severe debt. It will be expected that they will soon suffer storm damage…. If the object is a gift, it keeps moving, which in this case means that the man who received the goats throws a big party and everyone gets fed. The goats needn’t be given back, but they surely can’t be set aside to produce milk or more goats. And a new note has been added: the feeling that if a gift is not treated as such, it one form of property is converted into another, something horrible will happen. In folk tales the person who tries to hold on to a gift dies; in this anecdote the risk is `storm damage.’”[11]

[1] Prior to Christ, priesthood – which is mediation – had been removed from the people of God as an intrinsic quality of their anthropology as a people because of the sin of worshiping the golden calf and located in the Levitical priesthood as a cast apart from the people. See Scott Hahn, “Worship in the Word,” Letter and Spirit, Vol 1, 2005 (112).
[2] Isaiah 1, 11.
[3] Laborem Exercens #14.
[4] John Paul II, On Social Concern, #42.
[5] Ibid. #41.
[6] Andres Vazquez de Prada, The Founder of Opus Dei, Vol. III (2002) 51.
[7] John F. Coverdale, Uncommon Faith, Scepter (2002) 150.
[8] Ibid. 151.
[9] Andres Vazquez de Prada, The Founder of Opus Dei, Vol. III (2002) 178-179.
[10] Ibid. 483-484.
[11] Lewis Hyde, The Gift, Vintage (1983) (4-5).


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