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Alea Jacta Est!

January 10th is traditionally said to be the day on which Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC, precipitating the great civil war that began the end of the Roman Republic, and its transformation into an empire. I say “traditionally”, however, because the exact date is not reported in any ancient source, but is rather reconstructed from what is known about the events in question.

The Rubicon was the boundary between the province of Italy and that of Cisalpine Gaul, the latter being Caesar’s field of military action for the previous decade. Since it was illegal for a commander to bring an army into Italia, and the Senate had ordered him to stand down from his command and disband his army, this action was effectively a double defiance of the Republic, and a declaration of war against it. Had he been defeated and captured by the forces supporting the Senate in its opposition to him, he would certainly have suffered the ignominious death of a traitor. Caesar was thus committing himself at this point to either achieve complete political domination of the Republic by military means, and hence its effective overthrow, or die trying.

It was on this occasion, therefore, that Caesar famously pronounced the words which Suetonius reports (Divus Julius 32) as “Alea jacta est – the die is cast”, which is now a proverbial expression in many languages for reaching a point of no return. Plutarch, however, in his Parallel Lives, claims that Caesar said them in Greek, quoting the comic poet Menander, and in a slightly different grammatical form: “ἀνερρίφθω κύβος – let the die be cast.”

(Caesar Crossing the Rubicon, 1875, by French painter Adolphe Yvon (1817-93). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Either way, perhaps the strangest thing about this affair is that the precise cause of the conflict, in terms of WHY Caesar felt the need to do this, is not clear, and was not clear in antiquity. Two chapters before the crossing of the Rubicon, Suetonius discusses various explanations for his behavior. The last of these is a direct and cited quotation from the De Officiis, a philosophical treatise on political ethics written by Cicero in the latter months of 44 BC, after Caesar’s assassination.

“Quidam putant captum imperii consuetudine, pensitatisque suis et inimicorum viribus, usum occasione rapiendae dominationis, quam aetate prima concupisset. Quod existimasse videbatur et Cicero scribens de Officiis tertio libro semper Caesarem in ore habuisse Euripidis versus, quos sic ipse convertit: nam si violandum est ius, regnandi gratia, violandum est: aliis rebus pietatem colas. (εἴπερ γὰρ ἀδικεῖν χρή, τυραννίδος πέρι / κάλλιστον ἀδικεῖν, τἄλλα δ᾽ εὐσεβεῖν χρεών.)

Some think that he was seized by habit of ruling, and that, weighing his own strength and that of his enemies, he used the opportunity to seize domination, which had lusted. (“Concupire” is a highly negative word in Latin.) This seems to have been the estimation of Cicero as well, when he wrote in the third book of the De Officiis that Caesar always had upon his lips these verses of Euripides (Phoenissae, 524-5), which he himself translated thus: ‘If, for the sake of ruling, the law must be violated, then it must be violated; in all other matters, keep to duty.’ ”

Cicero’s attempt at delicacy in the original passage, which names neither Caesar nor Pompey, did not, of course, stave off his eventual proscription and execution after the defeat of Caesar’s assassins, and the ascent to power of his supporters.

“Est ergo ulla res tanti aut commodum ullum tam expetendum, ut viri boni et splendorem et nomen amittas? Quid est, quod afferre tantum utilitas ista, quae dicitur, possit, quantum auferre, si boni viri nomen eripuerit, fidem iustitiamque detraxerit? Quid enim interest, utrum ex homine se convertat quis in beluam an hominis figura immanitatem gerat beluae? Quid? qui omnia recta et honesta neglegunt, dummodo potentiam consequantur, nonne idem faciunt, quod is, qui etiam socerum habere voluit eum, cuius ipse audacia potens esset. Utile ei videbatur plurimum posse alterius invidia. Id quam iniustum in patriam et quam turpe esset, non videbat. Ipse autem socer in ore semper Graecos versus de Phoenissis habebat, quos dicam ut potero; incondite fortasse sed tamen, ut res possit intellegi: ‘Nam si violandum est ius, regnandi gratia, violandum est; aliis rebus pietatem colas.’

Is there, then, any object of such value or any advantage so worth winning that one should sacrifice the reputation and name of a good man? What is there that so‑called expediency can bring which is as great as what it takes away, if it steals from you the name of a good man, and strips you of the sense of honor and justice? For what difference does it make whether a man changes himself into a beast, or bears savagery of a beast under the figure of a man? Again, those who disregard all that is right and honest as long as they secure power, are they not doing the same as he who wished to have as a father-in‑law that man by whose effrontery he might gain power for himself? (This refers to Pompey, who married Caesar’s daughter.) It seemed to him advantageous to secure supreme power by the odium which fell upon another; and he did not see how unjust this was to his country this was, and how wrong morally. But the father-in‑law himself used to always have on his lips the Greek verses from the Phoenissae… ‘If, for the sake of ruling, the law must be violated, then it must be violated; in all other matters, keep to duty.’ ”

A Sermon of Pope St Leo the Great on the Epiphany

The friend and mentor of many of us at VSI, Fr Reginald Foster, was a great admirer of the writings of Pope St Leo I, and liked to say that “all you need to know about theology, you can find in Leo’s glorious Latin!” This is a little bit of hyperbole (a rhetorical device at which Fr Foster excelled), but Leo’s Latin is certainly as beautiful as his theology is profound, and we can hardly do better than to turn to him when we wish to learn about the Church’s great feast days. Here then is excerpt from one of his sermons on today’s feast day of the Epiphany, which is traditionally read in the Roman breviary.

“Gaudete in Domino, dilectissimi, iterum dico, gaudete: quoniam brevi intervallo temporis, post solemnitatem Nativitatis Christi, festivitas declarationis ejus illuxit: et quem in illo die Virgo peperit, in hoc mundus agnovit. Verbum enim caro factum, sic susceptionis nostræ temperavit exordia, ut natus Jesus et credentibus manifestus, et persequentibus esset occultus. Jam tunc ergo cæli enarraverunt gloriam Dei, et in omnem terram sonus veritatis exivit, quando et pastoribus exercitus Angelorum Salvatoris editi annuntiator apparuit, et Magos ad eum adorandum prǽvia stella perduxit: ut a solis ortu usque ad occasum veri Regis generatio coruscaret, cum rerum fidem et regna Orientis per Magos discerent, et Romanum imperium non lateret.

Nam et sævitia Herodis volens primordia suspecti sibi Regis exstinguere, huic dispensationi nesciens serviebat: ut dum atroci intentus facinori, ignotum sibi puerum indiscreta infantium cæde persequitur, annuntiatum cǽlitus dominatoris ortum insignior ubique fama loqueretur: … Tunc autem etiam Ægypto Salvator illatus est, ut gens antiquis erroribus dedita, jam ad vicinam salutem per occultam gratiam signaretur: et quæ nondum ejecerat ab animo superstitionem, jam hospitio reciperet veritatem.

Agnoscamus ergo, dilectissimi, in Magis adoratoribus Christi, vocationis nostræ fideique primitias: et exsultantibus animis beatæ spei initia celebremus. Exinde enim in æternam hereditatem coepimus introire: exinde nobis Christum loquentia Scripturarum arcana patuerunt, et veritas … omnibus nationibus lumen suum invexit. Honoretur itaque a nobis sacratissimus dies, in quo salutis nostræ Auctor apparuit: et quem Magi infantem venerati sunt in cunabulis, nos omnipotentem adoremus in cælis. Ac sicut illi de thesauris suis mysticas Domino munerum species obtulerunt, ita et nos de cordibus nostris, quæ Deo sunt digna, promamus.

(The Monforte Altarpiece; ca. 1470, by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes (1435 ca. – 1482))

Rejoice in the Lord, dearly beloved; again I say, rejoice, for after the passage of a brief time since the solemnity of Christ’s Birth, the feast of His Manifestation has shone upon us, and in it, the world has recognized Him whom the Virgin bore on that day. For the Word become Flesh arranged the beginnings of the taking on of our nature in such wise that when Jesus was born, He was both revealed to believers, and hidden from persecutors. Therefore, then already did the heavens proclaim the glory of God, and the sound of truth went out into all the earth, when the host of angels appeared to announce the Savior’s birth to the shepherds; and the star went forth and led the Magi to adore Him; so that from the rising of the sun to its setting, the Birth of the true King might shine forth, since the kingdoms of the East learned the truth of these matters through the Magi, and they did not lay hidden from the Roman Empire.

For even the savagery of Herod, wishing to destroy at His birth the King Whom he feared, served this arrangement unknowingly, so that while he was intent upon the atrocious crime, and sought out the boy unknown to him by the indiscriminate slaughter of infants, the report (of his action) spoke the more clearly of the Birth of the Lord proclaimed from heaven, … Then also was the Savior taken into Egypt, so that a nation given over to ancient errors might already be marked through hidden grace for the salvation drawn nigh, and receive the truth in hospitality, though it had not yet cast away superstition from its mind.

Let us therefore, dearly beloved, recognize in the wise men who worshipped Christ the first fruits of our calling and our faith, and with rejoicing souls, celebrate the beginnings of our blessed hope. For it was from that time that we begin to enter into the eternal inheritance; from then did the secrets of the Scriptures that speak of Christ lie open to us, and … the truth brought its light unto all the nations. Therefore, let this most holy day be honored by us, on which the author of our Salvation appeared, and let us adore the Almighty in Heaven, whom the Magi venerated as an infant in His crib. And just as they offered from their treasures gifts of spiritual meaning, so also let us bring forth from our hearts those things which are worthy of God.”

The Deed of Pope Benedict XVI’s Burial

Earlier today, the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who passed away on the morning of New Year’s Eve, was celebrated in the Piazza San Pietro. He will be interred in the grotto of the Vatican basilica, in the same place where first St John XXIII, and later St John Paul II, were previously buried, before they were beatified and their relics brought up to the church. As is customary, a deed of the principal acts of his papacy has been composed in Latin, which is then written on parchment, sealed into a glass bottle, and buried along with the body. This was customarily done not only for popes, but also for cardinals and secular dignitaries of all kinds. Here are some excerpts from the newest example; the full text can be read on the official Vatican website.

(His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, during his Apostolic visit to Brazil in May of 2007. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Agência BrasilCC BY 3.0 BR)

“In lumine Christi a mortuis Resurgentis, die tricesimo primo mensis Decembris anno Domini bismillesimo vicesimo secundo, hora nona, triginta quattuor momentis elapsis, ante meridiem, dum annus ad finem vergebat et iam ad Te Deum canendum parati eramus propter diversa beneficia a Domino concessa, Ecclesiae dilectus Pastor emeritus, Benedictus XVI, de hoc mundo ad Patrem migravit. Eius transitum tota Ecclesia orans una cum Summo Pontifice Francisco comitata est.

Benedictus XVI ducentesimus sexagesimus quintus fuit Pontifex. Cuius memoria in universae Ecclesiae atque omnium hominum cordibus perseverans manet. Iosephus Aloisius Ratzinger, die undevicesimo mensis Aprilis anno bismillesimo quinto Summus Pontifex electus, in vico v.d. Marktl am Inn, intra fines dioecesis Passaviensis, die decimo sexto mensis Aprilis anno millesimo nongentesimo vicesimo septimo ortus est. Pater eius munere publici ministri fungebatur, ex agricolarum Bavariae inferioris familia natus, cuius fortuna admodum erat exigua. Mater opificum de vico v.d. Rimsting ad lacum Chiemense erat filia, quae ante nuptias opus coquae varia apud deversoria exercuerat. Infantiam et adolescentiam in vico v.d. Traunstein deguit, parvo oppido prope Austriae fines, quod triginta circiter chilometra a Salisburgo aberat, ubi institutione sua christiana, humana et culturali exornatus est. …

Pontificatus sui fulcrum Benedictus Pp XVI propositum Dei et fidei posuit, necnon perseverantem vultus Domini Iesu Christi perquisitionem, ad cuius cognitionem omnes adiuvit opere potissimum suo, cui titulus Iesus de Nazareth, in tria volumina diviso. Ampla altaque doctrina biblica ac theologica praeditus, mira facultate enituit perspicua de summis capitibus doctrinae et spiritualitatis compendia concipiendi, sicut et de hodiernae aetatis vita Ecclesiae et humano cultu praecipuis. …

Doctrinae magisterium Benedicti Pp XVI in tribus Litteris encyclicis Deus caritas est …, Spe salvi … et Caritas in veritate … expositum videtur. Ecclesiae quattuor Adhortationes Apostolicas tradidit, plurimas Constitutiones Apostolicas, Litteras Apostolicas, praeter catecheses in Audientiis Generalibus et Allocutionibus habitis, additis illis in viginti quattuor itineribus Apostolicis ubique per orbem pronuntiatis.

***

In the light of Christ risen from the dead, on 31 December in the year of our Lord 2022, at 9:34 a.m., as the year came to an end and we were ready to sing the Te Deum for the many benefits granted by the Lord, the beloved Pastor Emeritus of the Church, Benedict XVI, passed from this world to the Father. The entire Church together with the Holy Father Francis in prayer accompanied his transit.

Benedict XVI was the 265th Pope. His memory endures in the hearts of the whole Church and of all men. Joseph Aloysius Ratzinger, who was elected Pope on April 19, 2005, was born on April 16, 1927, in Marktl am Inn, in the diocese of Passau (Germany). His father was a public official and came from a farming family in Lower Bavaria, of modest economic resources. His mother was the daughter of artisans from Rimsting on the shore of Lake Chiem, and before marrying she worked as a cook in a number of hotels. He spent his childhood and adolescence in Traunstein, a small village near the Austrian border, about thirty kilometres from Salzburg, where he received his Christian, human and cultural education. …

Pope Benedict XVI placed the theme of God and the Faith at the center of his pontificate, and the continuous search for the face of the Lord Jesus Christ, and helped all men to know Him especially by his work in three volumes Jesus of Nazareth.

Endowed with vast and profound biblical and theological knowledge, he was outstanding in his ability to formulate clear syntheses on the principal doctrinal and spiritual themes, as well as on crucial issues in the life of the Church and contemporary culture. …

Benedict XVI’s doctrinal magisterium is summarized in the three Encyclicals Deus caritas est …, Spe salvi … and Caritas in veritate (29 June 2009). He gave to the Church four Apostolic Exhortations, numerous Apostolic Constitutions and Apostolic Letters, as well as the Catecheses held at the General Audiences and the allocutions, including those delivered during his twenty-four apostolic journeys around the world.”

Tertullian on the Persecutors of the Church

The Roman Martyrology notes today as the commemoration of a martyr named Mavilus, who was killed at Hadrumetum, a city on the north African coast about 60 miles south of Carthage, by being thrown to wild beasts in the public arena. This took place during a persecution in 212 AD instigated by Scapula, the proconsul of Africa, under the emperor Septimius Severus.

The only source of information about Mavilus is a passing reference in an open letter to Scapula by the Christian writer Tertullian. (ca. 155-220 A.D.) Even though he died outside the peace of the Church as a member of an heretical sect, Tertullian remained very influential in the Latin-speaking church, and is regarded as the first of the Latin Fathers. St Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage in the mid-3rd century, used to refer to him simply as “the master”, and would never pass a day without reading something from his writings.

In the letter to Scapula, Tertullian reminds him of the many persecutors of the Church who had come to a bad end, a theme picked up at the very end of the age of persecutions by Lactantius. However, he does so not as a threat or in a spirit of vengeance, but out of concern for the welfare of the persecutors themselves. This passage alone would suffice to show the newness of the spirit which Christianity brought to the Roman empire, the willingness to forgiveness one’s enemies, as the Lord Himself commanded. This was, of course, dismissed by most Romans no more than weakness, but Tertullian understood that it was a weakness that was strong enough to conquer their world. One of his most famous dicta, from his Apology for the Christian faith, states this with a lapidary simplicity: “Hesterni sumus, et omnia vestra implevimus. – We (i.e. the Christians) are of yesterday, and we have already filled everything that was yours.”

(The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, 1883, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

“…qui videntur sibi impune tulisse, venient in diem divini judicii. Tibi quoque optamus admonitionem solam fuisse, quod cum Adrimeticum Mavilum ad bestias damnasses, et statim haec vexatio subsecuta est, et nunc ex eadem caussa interpellatio sanguinis. …

Non te terremus, qui nec timemus: sed velim, ut omnes salvos facere possimus, monendo μὴ θεομαχεῖν. Potes et officio jurisdictionis tuae fungi, et humanitatis meminisse, vel quia et vos sub gladio estis. …

Magistrum neminem habemus, nisi Deum solum. Hic ante te est, nec abscondi potest, sed cui nihil facere possis. Caeterum quos putas tibi magistros, homines sunt et ipsi morituri quandoque. Nec tamen deficiet haec secta, quam tunc magis aedificari scias, cum caedi videtur. Quisque enim tantam tolerantiam spectans, ut aliquo scrupulo percussus, et inquirere accenditur, quid sit in causa, et ubi cognoverit veritatem, et ipse statim sequitur.

… the persecutors who seem to themselves to have acted with impunity will come to the day of divine judgment. For you we wish that it may prove to have been only a warning, that immediately after you had condemned Mavilus of Adrumetum to the wild beasts, you were overtaken by those troubles, and that even now for the same reason you are called to a blood-reckoning. …

We do not seek to frighten you, and we also do not fear you; but I would that we could save all men by warning them not to fight with God. You can perform the duties of your charge, and yet remember the claims of humanity, if on no other ground than that you are liable to punishment yourself.

We have no master but God. He is before you, and cannot be hidden from you, but to Him you can do nothing. For the rest, those whom you regard as masters (i.e. the emperors) are only men, and one day will themselves die. And yet still this community will not fail, which you should know is then being built up when it seems that it is being destroyed. For whoever witnesses the great patience (of its martyrs), as if struck with misgivings, is inflamed with desire to examine the matter in question; and as soon as he learns the truth, at once begins to follow it.” (ad Scapulam, 3 in fine, 4 in init. 5 in fine)

The Birth of Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero was born on this day in the year 106 BC, in a town in southern Lazio called Arpinum. This was also the birthplace of the famous Gaius Marius, who held the consulship seven times in the late 2nd and early 1st century BC, and an unverified tradition claims Augustus’ lieutenant Marcus Agrippa as a native son. From this comes a motto often associated with the town, “Hinc ad imperium – from here to empire.” Cicero himself liked to note that both he and Marius, although they were not natives of Rome, and therefore famously regarded (and by many despised) as “new men”, proved to be saviors of the city, Marius in the Cimbrian War, and Cicero in the Catilinarian conspiracy.

(A statue of Cicero in the central piazza of the modern town of Arpino; image from Wikimedia Commons by pietro scerrato, CC BY-SA 3.0)

It is difficult to overstate the importance of his influence on the Latin language. The definition of “proper Latin” as that of Cicero has too often been exaggerated, to the needless despite of other perfectly good expressions of the language. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that it was he above all others who transformed it into the powerful medium for the writings of so many different cultures and eras that it has been for over two millennia.

In one sense, then, it is rather ironic that one of the most important sources for his life, and especially his early life, is a Greek work, the Parallel Lives of Plutarch, who pairs him with the great Athenian orator Demosthenes. But in another, this is highly appropriate, since it was the Greek language and philosophical tradition that formed so much of Cicero’s work as both an orator and writer.

Here is an excerpt from the Latin translation given in a bilingual edition of Plutarch, published in England in 1723. It was, of course, taken for granted that Latin was the medium by which an educated person might approach the Greek language, a fact which itself testifies to the extraordinary endurance of Cicero’s legacy.

“Editum ferunt Ciceronem, facili partu et nullo matris dolore, tertio Nonas Januarias; quo die magistratus nunc vota faciunt et sacrificant pro incolumitate principis. Nutrici ejus spectrum aiunt se obtulisse, ac praedixisse ingens eam bonum omnibus Romanis nutrire. Hac quum somnia esse et vana alioquin viderentur, ipse brevi ostendit certum fuisse oraculum. Nam ubi literarum fuit per aetatem capax, tanta in eo eluxit indoles, tantumque nomen inter pueros et laudem comparavit, quae parentes eorum excitaret ut ad ludum pergerent ad Ciceronem oculis contemplandum, celebratumque ejus in discendo acumen et solertiam considerandam: agrestiores succenserent filiis, quum cernerent in media eos caterva Ciceronem honoris causa per vias stipantes. Hic quum esset, qualem esse Plato vult studiosam et philophophiae naturam amantem, ad omnes natus artes complectendas, nec ad ullum doctrinae aut eruditionis praetereundum genus, ad poesim sane fuit proclivior. Extat poema quoddam parvum, quod puer etiamnum edidit, Pontius Glaucus, versibus tetrametris compositum. Progressu temporis, quum magis ac magis hoc studium excoleret, non modo orator habitus est, sed et poeta inter Romanos praetantissimus. Caeterum laus oratoria, licet multa in dicendo novata fuerint, vel hac manet aetate: poetica vero, quia multi ei insignes successerunt, neglecta jacet et obsoleta.

(The Young Cicero Reading, ca. 1464, by Vincenzo Foppa; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

It is said that Cicero was born, without travail or pain on the part of his mother, on the third day of the new kalends,​ the day on which at the present time the magistrates offer sacrifices and prayers for the health of the emperor. It would seem also that a phantom appeared to his nurse and foretold that her charge would be a great blessing to all the Romans. And although these presages were thought to be mere dreams and idle fancies, he soon showed them to be true prophecy; for when he was of an age for taking lessons, his natural talent shone out clear and he won name and fame among the boys, so that their fathers used to visit the schools in order to see Cicero with their own eyes and observe the quickness and intelligence in his studies for which he was extolled, though the ruder ones among them were angry at their sons when they saw them walking with Cicero placed in their midst as a mark of honor. And although he showed himself, as Plato​ thought a nature should do which was fond of learning and fond of wisdom, capable of welcoming all knowledge and incapable of slighting any kind of literature or training, he lent himself with somewhat greater ardour to the art of poetry. And a little poem which he wrote when a boy is still extant, called Pontius Glaucus, and composed in tetrameter verse. Moreover, as he grew older and applied himself with greater versatility to such accomplishments, he got the name of being not only the best orator, but also the best poet among the Romans. His fame for oratory abides to this day, although there have been great innovations in style; but his poetry, since many gifted poets have followed him, has altogether fallen into neglect and disrepute.”

The Pope’s Newest Latin Letter

Two days ago, the Church marked the fourth centenary of the death of St Francis de Sales, one of the great spiritual writers of the Counter-Reformation. Born to a noble family of the Duchy of Savoy in 1567, and educated by the Jesuits (then still a very new order) in Paris, he renounced the succession to his father’s title, entered the clergy of the diocese of Geneva, and was ordained to the priesthood at the age of 26. As a young priest, he was converted tens of thousands of Calvinists to Catholicism through his writing and preaching. In 1602, he was appointed bishop of Geneva, and governed his see very successfully until his death just over 20 years later. Since he died on the very ancient feast of the Holy Innocents, his feast day has been kept in January since his canonization in 1665; in 1877, Bl. Pius IX declared him to be a Doctor of the Church, and Pius XI made him the patron of writers and journalists.

As is customary on such anniversaries, the Vatican issued a letter in the Pope’s name to mark the occasion. We here offer an excerpt as just a small example of the Church’s very newest Latinity, chosen in reference to one of his most important books, The Introduction to the Devout Life. The full text can be read at the Vatican’s website.

“Novitas ac devotionis veritas … inveniuntur, in quadam radice penitus ad vitam divinam in nobis adstricta. Hoc in modo «vera vivaque devotio amorem Dei praesupponit, nec quid aliud est, quam verus quidam Dei amor; non tamen qualiscumque et talis qualis amor». Quae in fervida eius cogitatione nec quidquam aliud est praeter, «ne multa dicamus, quandam agilitatem et vivacitatem spiritualem, cuius adminiculo caritas suas in nobis actiones, aut potius nos per illam, prompte affectuoseque exsequitur et operatur». Ea, ergo, caritati non assistit, sed eiusdem est ostensio, quae pariter ad illam adducit. Sicuti flamma est prae igne: excitat enim vehementiam eius sine qualitatis variatione. «Itaque caritas et devotio non plus inter se differunt, quam ignis et flamma; quod caritas, cum spiritualis quidam ignis sit, quando vehementer inflammata et accensa est, dicatur devotio; adeo, ut devotio ad caritatis ignem aliud non addat, praeter flammam, quo caritatem et alacrem, et promptam et diligentem, non modo ad divina mandata observanda, verum etiam ad consilia et inspirationes coelestes exercendas reddat». Devotio sic percepta nihil reconditi habet. Conversatio vitae potius est, mos quidam agendi in certis cotidianae exsistentiae adiunctis. Quae parva dierum, sicut alimentum et vestitum, negotium atque otium, amorem ac procreationem diligentiamque erga officia ad artem exercendam pertinentia colligit atque interpretatur; breviter, vocationem uniuscuiusque illuminat.

(St Francis de Sales in His Study; 1760, by Peter Antonin Lorenzoni, in the parish church of Sigismund in Strobl, Austria. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The newness and truth of devotion are found … in a root which is deeply bound to the divine life within us. In this way, “a true and lively devotion presupposes the love of God; indeed, it is nothing other than a true love of God, not ‘love’ understood generically” And in his fervent way of thinking, it is nothing other than “, to speak briefly, a sort of spiritual agility and vivacity, by means of which charity acts within us, or rather, we act by means of it, with promptness and affection. For this reason, devotion does stand alongside charity, but is a manifestation thereof, which at the same time leads us back to it. It is like a flame with regard to fire: it increases its intensity without altering its quality. “Therefore, charity and devotion differ from one another no more than fire does from a flame, because charity, since it is a spiritual fire, when it is mightily fanned into flame and enkindled, is called devotion, which adds to the fire of charity only the flame which makes charity active, prompt, and diligent, not only in the observance of the divine commandments, but also in the exercise of heavenly counsels and inspirations.” Devotion thus understood is in no way something abstract. It is rather a way of life, a manner of living amidst the affairs of our concrete daily existence. It embraces and interprets the little things, such as food and dress, work and leisure, love and parenthood, conscientiousness in the fulfilment of our duties of employment; in a word, it illuminates the vocation of each person.”

Macrobius on the Massacre of the Innocents

The late antique Latin writer Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius is usually referred to by his first name only, in part, perhaps, because he shares his other names with two of the most prominent men of the late 4th century, St Ambrose of Milan and the Emperor Theodosius. Almost nothing is known about him; his birth is placed at the end of the 4th century, and his death in the mid-5th. Like many literary men of his age, he was a compiler more than an original writer, and his writings are now considered important primarily because they have preserved a great many citations of texts that would otherwise be lost. For example, his commentary on The Dream of Scipio, the surviving part of the sixth and final book of Cicero’s De Re Publica, preserves some of the original that is otherwise lost, a fact which made it very popular in the Middle Ages.

His other major work is called the Saturnalia, since it is framed as a conversation that takes place over several days in the house of one of the interlocutors, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, during that feast. As in similar works like as Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights and Athenaeus’ Sophists at the Banquet, the conversation ranges all over the place, with many digressions. The first book discusses the origin of the Saturnalia, segueing into a discussion of the Roman calendar and the origins of religious feasts in general. The third through sixth books are largely occupied with literary criticism of Virgil’s writings, while the seventh mostly discusses various aspects of physiology.

Of the second book, only a relatively small portion is preserved in its original place, while another section of it seems to have been displaced into the third. It consists largely of jokes and anecdotes attributed to various authors; Cicero and the emperor Augustus are each mentioned more than twenty times. But one of these is strangely pertinent to today’s feast of the Holy Innocents, the children in the town of Bethlehem massacred by King Herod, as recounted in Matthew 2, 13-18.

“Cum audisset inter pueros, quos in Syria Herodes rex Iudaeorum intra bimatum iussit interfici, filium quoque eius occisum, ait: Melius est Herodis porcum esse quam filium.

When (Augustus) heard that among the boys two years old or younger whom Herod, the king of the Jews, ordered to be killed in Syria, his own (i.e. Herod’s) son was also slain, he said, ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.’ ”

In Greek, which Augustus knew well, these words would also make a pun, since the word for “pig” is “hus (ὗς)”, while the word for “son” is “huios (υἱός).” This refers to the fact that as a Jew, King Herod would have no reason to kill a pig, since he could not eat it. (Non-Jewish writers in the Greco-Roman world often remarked upon this aspect of the Mosaic dietary laws.) However, he did not scruple to massacre the children in Bethlehem, and several of his own relatives; the introduction to the article on him in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia says that he was “prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.”

In the church of the Servite Order in Siena, Italy, the Massacre of the Holy Innocents was depicted in fresco in the 1330s by three local artists working together, Pietro Lorenzetti, and the brothers Francesco and Niccolò di Segna. The scene is set in Siena itself, with the city’s famous cathedral at the middle of the top; below the border is an abbreviated version of the quotation from Macrobius given above.

Two Legends of St John the Evangelist

The very earliest sources of the Roman Rite attest to the custom by which the feast of the Lord’s Birth is followed immediately by three feasts of Saints of the New Testament. St Stephen the first martyr is celebrated on December 26th, followed by the apostle St John, the evangelist who speaks most clearly about the Incarnation, and then the Holy Innocents, the children killed by King Herod in Bethlehem, as narrated in Matthew 2, 13-18.

In the Roman Breviary, one of the Matins lessons for St John tells this beautiful story about the end of his life, as recounted in St Jerome’s commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (3, 6).

“Beatus Joannes Evangelista, cum Ephesi moraretur usque ad ultimam senectutem, et vix inter discipulorum manus ad ecclesiam deferretur, nec posset in plura vocem verba contexere; nihil aliud per singulas solebat proferre collectas, nisi hoc: Filioli, diligite alterutrum. Tandem discipuli et fratres, qui aderant, taedio affecti quod eadem semper audirent, dixerunt: Magister, quare semper hoc loqueris? Qui respondit dignam Joanne sententiam: Quia præceptum Domini est; et, si solum fiat, sufficit.

The blessed evangelist John, while he was staying at Ephesus until his extreme old age, and could only with difficulty be carried to the church by the hands of his disciples, and was unable to speak at length, was wont to nothing else at each meeting but this, “My children, love one another.” At last, the disciples and brethren who were present, having grown weary at always hearing these same words, said, “Master, why do you always say this?” And he answered with a saying worthy of John: “Because it is the commandment of the Lord, and if this only be done, it is enough.”

St John is traditionally said to have spent much of his life in Asia Minor, and to have established the Church in many of the great cities in that region, including Ephesus. The Golden Legend, a tremendously popular  13th century collection of legends of the Saints, contains this story about his career there. As the number of Christians grows, and they begin to clash with the local pagans, John by his prayers causes the great temple of Diana to collapse, and its cult image to break. He is therefore arrested by one of the pagan priests, a man named Aristodemus, who proposes a contest to determine which is the true God.

“ ‘si vis, ut credam in Deum tuum, dabo tibi venenum bibere et si nullam in te laesionem videro, verus Deus Dominus tuus apparebit.’ Cui apostolus, ‘Fac ut locutus es.’ Et ille, ‘Volo ut ante alios morientes videas, ut sic amplius pertimescas.’ Pergens igitur Aristodemus ad proconsulem, duos viros decapitandos petiit, et coram iis omnibus venenum dedit, qui mox ut venenum dedit, biberunt et spiritum exhalaverunt. Tunc apostolus calicem accipiens et signo crucis se muniens totum venenum bibit, et nullam laesionem incurrit; quapropter Deum omnes laudare coeperunt. Aristodemus autem dixit, ‘Adhuc mihi inest dubietas, sed si veneno mortuos suscitaverit, absque dubio vere credam.’ Tunc apostolus ei tunicam suam tribuit. Cui ille, ‘Cur mihi tunicam tuam dedisti?’ Cui apostolus, ‘Ut sic confusus a tua infidelitate discedas.’ Cui ille: ‘Numquid tunica tua me credere faciet?’ Et apostolus, ‘Vade et mitte eam super corpora defunctorum, dicens, “Apostolus Christi me misit ad vos, ut in Christi nomine exsurgatis.” ’ Quod cum fecisset, illico surrexerunt. Tunc Apostolus pontificem et proconsulem credentes cum omni parentela sua Christi nomine baptizavit.

(The Death of St John at Ephesus; fresco in the parish church of Scheffau am Wilden Kaiser, Austria, which is dedicated to the two Saints John, the Baptist and the Evangelist. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0.)

If you want me to believe in your God, I will give you poison to drink, and if I see no harm befall you (as Christ says in Mark 16, 18), your Lord will appear as the true God.’ To this the Apostle said, ‘Do as you say have said,’ and he answered, ‘I want you to see others die first, so that you may thus fear the more.’ Aristodemus therefore went to the proconsul and asked for two men who had been condemned to death, and before everyone gave them poison; and as soon as he gave the poison, they drank it and gave up the ghost. Then the apostle, taking the cup and fortifying himself with the sign of the cross, drink all the poison, and incurred no harm, wherefore all began to praise God. But Aristodemus said, ‘I still have a doubt, but if he shall raise up the men who were poisoned to death, without doubt I will truly believe.’ Then the Apostle gave him his tunic, to which he answered, ‘Why have you given me your tunic?’ And the Apostle answered, ‘That you may thus be confounded and depart from your infidelity.’ To whom he answered, ‘Surely your tunic will not make me believe?’ And the apostle answered, ‘Go and put it on the bodies of the dead men, saying, “The apostle of Christ has sent me to you, that you may rise in the name of Christ.” ’ And when he had done this, they rose at once. Then the Apostle baptized the priest and the proconsul with all their family in the name of Christ.”

This episode gave rise to the artistic tradition of depicting St John holding a chalice with a serpent or a dragon coming out of it, which symbolizes either the poison or its effectiveness leaving the cup. And likewise, a custom is still observed in many places to this day of blessing wine in honor of the Saint on his feast. One of the prayers of this blessing in the Roman Ritual therefore says, “Et sicut beatus Joannes de calice bibens venenum, illaesus omnino permansit, ita omnes, hac die in honorem beati Joannis de calice isto bibentes, meritis ipsius ab omni aegritudine veneni, et noxiis quibusvis absolvantur… And just as the blessed John, drinking poison from a cup, remained altogether unharmed, so may all who drink of this cup today in his honor, be set free by his merits from every illness (inflicted by) poison, and all other harmful things…”

(St John the Evangelist, ca. 1605, by El Greco. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

St Servulus of Rome

The Dialogues of St Gregory the Great are a collection of stories and miracles of Saints whom the author knew personally, or were known by people whom he knew, written as a conversation between himself and his deacon Peter. The work was translated into Greek early on, and became very popular in the East, whence St Gregory’s nickname in the Byzantine tradition, “the Dialogist.” The second book is occupied entirely by the life and deeds of St Benedict, for which it is earliest and the most important source.    

In the fourteenth chapter of the fourth book, Gregory gives this touching story of a paralyzed beggar named Servulus, who was wont to spend much of his time in the portico of the basilica of St Clement in Rome. Servulus’ death, which took place on December 23rd, was witnessed by a member of the monastic community which Gregory had led prior to his papal election; this unnamed man was still alive at the time he wrote.

“… saepe animabus exeuntibus electorum, dulcedo solet laudis coelestis erumpere, ut dum illam libenter audiunt, dissolutionem carnis ab anima sentire minime permittantur. … in ea porticu quae euntibus ad ecclesiam beati Clementis est pervia, fuit quidam, Servulus nomine, …  qui quidem pauper rebus, sed meritis dives erat, quem longa aegritudo dissolverat. Nam ex quo illum scire potuimus, usque ad finem vitae paralyticus jacebat. Quid dicam quia stare non poterat, qui nunquam in lecto surgere vel ad sedendum valebat, nunquam manum suam ad os ducere, nunquam se potuit ad latus aliud declinare? Huic ad serviendum mater cum fratre aderat, et quidquid ex eleemosyna potuisset accipere, hoc eorum manibus pauperibus erogabat. Nequaquam litteras noverat, sed Scripturae sacrae sibimet Codices emerat, et religiosos quosque in hospitalitatem suscipiens, hos coram se studiose legere faciebat. Factumque est ut juxta modum suum plene sacram Scripturam discere… Studebat semper in dolore gratias agere, hymnis Deo et laudibus diebus ac noctibus vacare. … Cumque jam se morti proximum agnovisset, peregrinos viros, atque in hospitalitatem susceptos, admonuit ut surgerent, et cum eo psalmos pro exspectatione sui exitus decantarent. Cumque cum eis et ipse moriens psalleret, voces psallentium repente compescuit cum terrore magni clamoris, dicens: Tacete; nunquid non auditis quantae resonent laudes in caelo? Et dum ad easdem laudes quas intus audierat, aurem cordis intenderet, sancta illa anima carne soluta est. Qua scilicet exeunte, tanta illic fragrantia odoris aspersa est, ut omnes qui illic aderant inaestimabili suavitate replerentur, ita ut per hoc patenter cognoscerent quod eam laudes in coelo suscepissent. Cui rei monachus noster interfuit, qui nunc usque vivit, et cum magno fletu attestari solet, quia quousque corpus ejus sepulturae traderent, ab eorum naribus odoris illius fragrantia non recessit.

… often when the souls of the elect go forth, a sweet sound of heavenly praise is wont to burst forth, so that, as they willingly listen to, they may be permitted by the soul to barely feel the dissolution of the flesh. … in that porch which leads the way to the church of the blessed Clement, there was a certain man called Servulus … who was poor in wealth, but rich in merits, and whom a long sickness had afflicted. For from the time when I first came to know him, to the end of his life he lay paralyzed What can I say, but that he could not stand, and was never able to sit up in his bed, could never put his hand to his mouth, or turn from one side to the other. His mother and brother attended and served him, and whatever he could get in alms, by their hands he bestowed upon other poor people. He could not read at all, yet he had bought for himself the books of Sacred Scripture, and taking in as guests any religious men, he eagerly had them read them to him; and thus it came about that he fully learned the Sacred Scripture in his own way. … He always took care in his pains to give God thanks day and night with hymns and praises, and when he knew that he was close to death, he urged all the strangers lodged in his house to rise and sing psalms with him as he awaited his departure. And as he, though dying, was singing with them, of a sudden he restrained the voices of the singers, starting them with a loud cry, and saying, “Be silent! Do you not hear the great praise that resound in heaven?” And while he lay the ear of heart to those praises which he heard inwardly, his holy soul was released from the flesh, and as it went forth, so great a fragrance filled the place, that all who were present were filled with an unfathomable sweetness, and thus did they clearly learn from this that those praises had received his soul in heaven. One of our monks who is still living was present for this event, and bears witness to it with great weeping, for until they gave his body over for burial, they smelled that fragrance continually.”

Believing Thomas

On the calendar of the usus antiquior, today is the feast of the Apostle St Thomas. This feast was instituted in the West in the 9th century; the reason for the choice of date is unknown, but it is likely not a coincidence that nine other months have the feast of an Apostle or Evangelist within their last ten days, thus distributing them more or less evenly through the year.

The Gospel of his feast, John 20, 24-29, recounts his meeting with the Risen Christ on the eighth day after the Resurrection. The homily on this Gospel read in the Roman Breviary is taken from one preached by Pope St Gregory the Great (590-604) on Low Sunday, but nevertheless fits perfectly with the tenor of the Advent season in which St Thomas’ day is celebrated.

“Plus … nobis Thomae infidelitas ad fidem, quam fides credentium discipulorum profuit; quia dum ille ad fidem palpando reducitur, nostra mens, omni dubitatione postposita, in fide solidatur. Sic quippe discipulum Dominus post resurrectionem suam dubitare permisit, nec tamen in dubitatione deseruit; sicut ante nativitatem suam habere Mariam sponsum voluit, qui tamen ad ejus nuptias non pervenit. Nam ita factus est discipulus dubitans et palpans, testis verae resurrectionis, sicut sponsus matris fuerat custos integerrimae virginitatis.

Palpavit autem, et exclamavit: Dominus meus, et Deus meus. Dicit ei Jesus: Quia vidisti me, credidisti. Cum Paulus Apostolus dicat, Est autem fides sperandarum substantia rerum, argumentum non apparentium; profecto liquet quia fides illarum rerum argumentum est, quae apparere non possunt. Quae etenim apparent, jam fidem non habent, sed agnitionem. Dum ergo vidit Thomas, dum palpavit, cur ei dicitur: Quia vidisti me, credidisti? Sed aliud vidit, aliud credidit. A mortali quippe homine divinitas videri non potuit. Hominem ergo vidit, et Deum confessus est, dicens: Dominus meus, et Deus meus. Videndo ergo credidit, qui considerando verum hominem, hunc Deum, quem videre non poterat, exclamavit.

(St Thomas and the Risen Christ, 1640s, by the Dutch painter Matthias Stom)   

Thomas’ lack of faith benefited our faith more than the faith of the disciples who believed, for while he is brought back to faith by touching (the Lord’s side), our minds are strengthened in faith, every doubt being laid aside. Indeed, the Lord permitted His disciple to doubt after His resurrection, and yet, did not abandon him in doubt, just as He willed before His birth that Mary should have a spouse, who nevertheless did not consummate their marriage. For thus did the disciple, by doubting and touching, become a witness of the truth of the Resurrection, just as His Mother’s spouse was the keeper of Her untouched virginity.

He touched, and cried out. “My Lord and my God.” Jesus said to him, “Because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed.” When Paul the Apostle says (Heb. 11, 1), “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of matters that do not appear”, he plainly means that faith is the evidence of things that cannot be seen. For things which are seen are not the object of faith, but of knowledge. Therefore, since Thomas saw when he touched, why is it said to him, “Because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed?” But he saw one thing, and believed another, for divinity cannot be seen by a mortal man. Therefore, he saw a man, and confessed Him to be God, saying ‘My Lord and my God.’ Therefore, in seeing, he believed, while, considering the true man, he acclaimed Him to be God, whom he could not see.”

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