For the average student of the Bible, who starts his or her study ‘“in the beginning” with the book of Genesis, it doesn’t take long to realize that names play…
For the average student of the Bible, who starts his or her study ‘“in the beginning” with the book of Genesis, it doesn’t take long to realize that names play a significant role throughout sacred Scripture.
They reveal a certain characteristic, or mark an event, in the lives of people and the history of places. Names are sometimes changed as well. In fact, it only takes 17 chapters into Genesis before the great patriarch of Israel, Abram, becomes Abraham.
Why is that? Why does God change people’s names?
The short answer to that question is that a name change signifies a new call in life. It is symbolic of a new identity.
From Abram to Abraham
In the case of Abram, whom God would make Abraham, the change in names reflected a new status. At age 75, Abram is called by the Lord to go forth from his native land and begin a new nation (see Gn 12). He is told that he will receive a plot of land as far as his eyes can see and given descendents as numerous as the dust of the earth (Gn 13:15-16).
He was attentive to the Lord’s directives throughout his journey in the land of Canaan. When Abram is the age of 99, the Lord calls him and says, “no longer shall you be called Abram; your name shall be Abraham, for I am making you the father of a host of nations” (Gn 17:5).
In Hebrew, the name Abram means “exulted father,” while Abraham means “father of a multitude.” The name change became a benediction of sorts. God memorialized Abraham’s obedience and faithfulness and blessed him for the road ahead. As the saying goes, behind every great man is a strong woman. Abraham had Sarai. God changed her name to Sarah, or “mother of multitudes,” and thus a new calling. “God further said to Abraham: ‘As for your wife Sarai, do not call her Sarai; her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her, and I will give you a son by her. Him also will I bless; he shall give rise to nations, and rulers of peoples shall issue from him’ ” (Gn 17:15-16).
God appointed a royal couple in Abraham and Sarah. The patriarch now has a matriarch, and she will give birth to a noble son, Isaac, who will continue to bear witness to the Old Covenant.
Also in the Old Testament is the story of Jacob, who becomes Israel. Jacob means “deceitful one” (literally, “leg-puller”), and the son of Rebekah lived up to his name sake. His older twin brother, Esau, points this out when he explains that Jacob took away his birthright and “now he has taken away my blessing” (Gn 27:36). However, God turned the deceitful Jacob into the “prince of God” as he is given the new name Israel just five chapters later. God says to him, “You shall no longer be spoken of as Jacob, but as Israel” (Gn 32:28). Under his new name, he is called to be the leader of the 12 tribes of Israel and becomes a key Old Testament patriarch.
In with the New
In the New Testament, two notable name changes are those of Peter and Paul. Peter is the second-most mentioned name in the New Testament after Jesus. However, he wasn’t born Peter. His birth name was Simon son of Jonah (see Mt 16:17). He and his brother Andrew grew up together fishing on the Sea of Galilee. They were among the first disciples chosen by Our Lord.
“Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You will be called Kephas’ (which is translated Peter)” (Jn 1:42).
Why did the Lord call this man “Rock?” Because of the mission he was about to receive. The Lord said to him, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it’” (Mt 16:18). The fisherman from Bethsaida had become the rock, or the building stone, of the Church. God had chosen him with a new mission. He was now a fisher of men. His new name gave him his identity as the first pope and leader of the Church.
A name change took place as well to Saul, who became Paul. However, it wasn’t God who changed this Jewish man’s name. Not unlike his contemporaries of the time, it is believed that Saul, a Hebrew living under Roman rule, would have acquired more than one name. The story of Paul’s conversion is narrated three times in the Acts of the Apostles. However, in none of these stories is God mentioned as the one changing Saul’s name. On the contrary, it is Jesus who says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). His new name is mentioned briefly in Acts 13:9: “But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him.” While the name change from Saul to Paul doesn’t exactly fit the same mold of Abraham and the others, it can be reasoned that it signified his new identity as the Apostle to the Gentiles.
Devotion to the Holy Name
Reverence to the Holy Name of Jesus began in the early Church. The apostles and the first disciples were the first to cultivate devotion to the sacred name of Jesus.
St. Paul, in his Letter to the Colossians, writes, “And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:17).
During the time of the Council of Lyons in 1274, Pope Gregory X issued a call to the universal Church to take up this devotion to the Holy Name. Soon after, the Dominicans took up the Church’s pleas and began preaching on the virtues of the Holy Name.
Why Do Religious Change Their Names?
In generations past, it was the norm that religious nuns and, at times, orders of priests or brothers ran Catholic grade schools. The presence of these dedicated women was regularly recognizable through their distinct religious habits, and quite often the nuns carried unique names.
For any third- or fourth-grader who had Sister Mary of the Cross as his or her teacher or Sister John the Baptist in the classroom across the hall, the question might have arisen of where did she get that name from? Didn’t her parents know she was a girl? Why did they name her John the Baptist?
The answer lies in the fact that the taking of a new name symbolizes the entering of a new state in life. Think of marriage. When a woman marries, she normally drops her maiden name and takes on the name of her husband. She is no longer a maiden, but rather is now a married woman.
While this tradition was most prevalent among female orders, it was not un-common for male religious, particularly monastic orders of men, to change their names when they professed vows or were ordained.
Customs varied on what a newly professed name could be. Sometimes the women were allowed to suggest a new name. In other instances, sisters were assigned a name. In either case the ultimate decision was in the hands of the mother superior.
For nearly 1,000 years, the permanent diaconate had all but disappeared from the Church in the West. How were permanent deacons restored, and what service do they offer the Church…
For nearly 1,000 years, the permanent diaconate had all but disappeared from the Church in the West. How were permanent deacons restored, and what service do they offer the Church today?
“At that time, as the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ The proposal was acceptable to the whole community, so they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and the holy Spirit, also Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them” (Acts 6:1-6).
As is clear from this passage in the Acts of the Apostles, the deacon is called to the service of the faithful. The word deacon itself comes from the Greek word diakonos , which means “servant,” or “helper.” In the days of the early Church, deacons traditionally helped the local bishop. In fact, one of the Church Fathers, St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the first century, noted that the deacon had two functions: penning letters for the bishop and assisting him in the ministry of the Word. These first deacons were also active in helping the poor and needy of the community. St. Ignatius emphasized their role as one of service to the Church of God.
An Age of Decline
By the third century, the roles of the deacon began to fall into disuse. Historians say it was due to a number of issues, including tension between the duties of the priest and those of the deacon. Also, confusion existed as to who had authority over them. Priests questioned why deacons were not subject to them, but rather were under the direct orders of the bishops.
By the fifth century, the role of the permanent deacon was all but defunct. Emphasis was instead placed on the identity of the deacon as an introductory step to holy orders, the so-called transitional diaconate. It was and still is today the final step of formation before priestly ordination. Thus the Church was full of transitional deacons — or priests in training — while permanent deacons were essentially gone from the West, and would be for nearly a millennium.
Amazingly, interest in reviving the permanent diaconate was sparked by a group of priests imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. They envisioned men — married or single — taking up the work of the Church beyond the walls of the sanctuary. They also saw the deacon as one who would help overcome the estrangement that many Catholics had experience due to a rigid hierarchical structure. They envisioned deacons as married or single celibate men who would live and work in the world. When the idea of a restored permanent diaconate was presented to Pope Pius XII in 1957, he expressed his support. However, the Pope noted that “the time is not yet ripe.”
In the following decade, the Church decided that the time had arrived. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65), in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church ( Lumen Gentium ), placed emphasis on the restoration of the permanent diaconate:
“The diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy. It pertains to the competent territorial bodies of bishops, of one kind or another, to decide, with the ap- proval of the Supreme Pontiff, whether and where it is opportune for such deacons to be appointed for the care of souls. With the consent of the Roman Pontiff, this diaconate will be able to be conferred upon men of more mature age, even upon those living in the married state. It may also be conferred upon suitable young men. For them, however, the law of celibacy must remain intact” (No. 29).
In July 1967, Pope Paul VI issued the document Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (“Sacred Order of the Diaconate”), which authorized the re-establishment of the permanent diaconate, making it possible for men to become deacons permanently, without going on to the priesthood. He allowed married men, with the explicit consent of their wives, to be ordained permanent deacons. Bishops, particularly those from the United States, began to set up formation programs for those men interested in being ordained a deacon, and, by the middle of the 1970s, the Church around the world saw the ordination of these new permanent deacons.
The Modern Permanent Diaconate
Since Vatican II, much has been discussed about the identity and role of the permanent deacon. Questions arose, for example, as to whether they were “sub-priests” or simply dedicated lay ministers. In 1998, under the direction of Pope John Paul II, two important documents were issued by two offices in Rome: Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, by the Congregation for the Clergy, and Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons, by the Congregation for Catholic Education. Both documents provide the world’s bishops’ conferences with directives and norms on the selection, formation and pastoral care of aspirants, candidates and deacons in accordance with the intent of the Second Vatican Council. In its Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, the Congregation for the Clergy stated that “through the imposition of hands and the prayer of consecration [the deacon] is constituted a sacred minister and a member of the hierarchy” (No. 1).
The document goes on to define the ministry of the deacon as that of service and proclamation of the Word of God: “The principal function of the deacon, therefore, is to collaborate with the bishop and the priests in the exercise of a ministry which is not of their own wisdom but of the word of God, calling all to conversion and holiness. He prepares for such a ministry by careful study of Sacred Scripture, of Tradition, of the liturgy and of the life of the Church” (No. 23).
Today, there are around 17,000 permanent deacons in the United States (the highest total by far for any single country) in full-time ministry, as opposed to holding another job and serving part time in ministry. Worldwide, there are nearly 36,000 permanent deacons. The majority of these men work in parishes, helping in the day-to-day ministries of the parish. Among other things, they preach the Gospel at Mass, baptize, witness marriages and help the faithful prepare for the sacraments.
Pope Benedict XVI made it clear in a 2006 address to the permanent deacons of Rome that whether their ministry is on the weekend at Church or perhaps a weeknight at a nursing home, the call of the permanent diaconate is a universal one. “Union with Christ,” said the Pope, “to be cultivated through prayer, sacramental life and, in particular, Eucharistic Adoration, is of the greatest importance to your ministry, if it is truly to testify to God’s love.”
Feast day, Dec. 26
The Church honors St. Stephen as the patron saint of deacons, and rightfully so. Stephen was one of the seven men named in Acts 6 to take care of needy Christians and to proclaim and teach the Word of God. He was also the first martyr for the Faith when he was stoned to death just outside of Jerusalem.
The feast of the protomartyr, as Stephen is often called, is celebrated each year on Dec. 26. As well as being the Church’s first martyr, Stephen is the first on a long list of saints who served the Church as deacons.
St. Lawrence of Rome
Feast day, Aug. 10
The rise of St. Lawrence, deacon of Rome, could not have come at a better time. It was A.D. 258 when the Roman Emperor Valerian began a fresh round of persecutions against Christians. Among those rounded up was Pope Sixtus II, who was arrested and beheaded just outside of Rome with several of his deacons.
St. Lawrence was one of the pope’s deacons, but he avoided arrest and hurried back to Rome. Fearful that the oncoming mob would rob the Church’s sacred vessels, he sold them and distributed the money to the poor of the city. However, not long after, he was summoned to appear before the Roman court.
There, he was offered a deal. The prefect promised to spare Lawrence’s life if he would bring all of the Church’s treasures to the state. Lawrence agreed and had three days to complete the task. On the third day, Lawrence returned to court with a large crowd of poor, ragged and lame people. He explained to the prefect that these people were the treasures of the city.
The judge was furious and ordered Lawrence to be burned alive in public on a giant griddle. While being roasted alive, the jovial Lawrence is reported to have said to his executioners, “Turn me over, I am done on this side.”
Fittingly, he is the patron saint of cooks and butchers.
St. Ephrem of Syria
Feast day, June 9
Little is known about the early life of this fourth-century saint. It is believed that he served as a deacon under four bishops of Nisibis, an ancient city of Mesopotamia in what is now southeastern Turkey.
Ephrem is known for writing hymns, homilies and poetry. Tradition has it that Ephrem began composing hymns to combat a number of heresies and attacks on the Church during his era. He is often credited with introducing the use of hymns in public worship.
In 363, the area of Nisibis was under attack by the Persians, and Ephrem led a number of Christian refugees to Edessa, roughly 100 miles from his home. There, he established a popular theological school. He died in 373 and was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1920. He is the patron saint of spiritual directors and spiritual leaders.
While they are similar in name, sacraments and sacramentals have a unique and distinct role in the life of the Catholic Church. Sacraments are outward signs that give grace to…
While they are similar in name, sacraments and sacramentals have a unique and distinct role in the life of the Catholic Church. Sacraments are outward signs that give grace to those who receive them in a worthy manner.
Sacramentals, on the other hand, “are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them, men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1667).
Blessings Come First
Sacramentals are often a stumbling block for non-Catholics who don’t understand their need or person. For instance, before his conversion to Catholicism, Dr. Scott Hahn was a staunch anti-Catholic Presbyterian minister. In his talks, Hahn often tells the story of how he discovered his grandmother’s rosary. His grandmother had just died and Hahn relates that he ripped the rosary beads to pieces pleading to God to set her free from the chains of Catholicism that had kept her bound.
Today, the internationally recognized Catholic author and speaker couldn’t be more of a supporter of the Blessed Virgin Mary and promoter of the Rosary.
When it comes to prioritizing sacramentals, the Church emphasizes the importance of blessings.
“Among sacramentals blessings (of persons, meals, objects, and places) come first. Every blessing praises God and prays for his gifts. In Christ, Christians are blessed by God the Father ‘with every spiritual blessing’” (Catechism, No. 1671).
Blessings of priests and bishops have the power, so to speak, to turn objects such as a new rosary or statue into a sacramental. While the laity can bless, their blessings are more of a prayer or a plea to God.
For example, the blessing at meals is a chance to offer God a prayer of praise and thanksgiving. It makes holy the mere need for nutrition and is a reminder of the most blessed meal, the Eucharist. In a similar manner, a parent’s blessing of their children serves as a petition to God to keep their kids safe from all evil.
Interestingly, exorcism is a sacramental. It takes place when the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion.
Exorcisms may either be minor, also called simple exorcisms, or major, called solemn exorcisms. Minor exorcisms occur in the Rite of Baptism and during the RCIA process, where candidates are asked to rebuke Satan and all his evil ways. Thus if you have been baptized you have been part of an exorcism. A major exorcism, which attracts much attention and curiosity, is directed at the expulsion of demons or freedom from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church (see Catechism, No. 1673). Often used in a major exorcism are the sacramentals of holy water, blessed salt and a crucifix.
Are Sacramentals Found in the Bible?
While you will not find people in the Bible fingering rosary beads, wearing scapulars or donning Miraculous Medals, there are a number of passages of Scripture that support the use of sacramentals:
* In the Old Testament, Naaman went to Elisha for a cure for his leprosy. Elisha told him, “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will heal, and you will be clean” (2 Kgs 5:10).
* When the man came in contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet (see 2 Kgs 13:20-21).
* Jesus healed the blind man using mud (see Jn 9:6-12).
* The woman with hemorrhages was healed by touching Jesus’ garment (see Lk 8:44).
* In Acts 19:11-12, it is recounted that when face cloths or aprons that had touched the skin of Paul and were applied to the sick, diseases were healed and evil spirits released.
There are a number of sacramentals that are directly referenced in the Bible:
Holy Water — Numbers 5:17 states, “In an earthen vessel [the priest] shall take holy water, as well as some dust from the floor of the tabernacle and put it in the water.” Water was also used for ceremonial cleansing (see Ps 16:4).
Sign of the Cross — St. Paul states emphatically, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified for me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14).
In the Old Testament: “The Lord said to him, ‘Pass through the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and mark an X on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the abominations practiced within it. Old and young, male and female, women and children — wipe them out! But do not touch anyone marked with the X” (Ez 9:4,6).
Blessed Salt — Jesus referred to this sacramental in the Gospel of Mark: “Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid, with what will you restore its flavor? Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another” (9:49-50).
In the Old Testament: “When you have completed the purification, you must bring an unblemished young bull and an unblemished ram from the flock and present them before the Lord. The priests shall throw salt on them and sacrifice them as burnt offerings to the Lord” (Ez 43:23-24).
Finally, although the Rosary was not yet created during the time of the Bible, repetitive prayer is mentioned. Yes, the Rosary is often criticized due to its repetitious nature, which is forbidden in Matthew 6:7: “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words.” However, that is the only verse in Scripture that condemns such practice. There are several biblical passages that state otherwise on this issue.
In the Agony of the Garden, Jesus prays three times that the cup would pass from Him (see Mt 26:39-44). Similarly, in Psalm 136, God is praised numerous times, and in Revelations 4:8, the four living creatures cry out day and night, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty.”
Eddie O’Neill writes from Missouri.
In every day and age there have been certain cultural norms that are accepted and followed without much questioning. For instance, when eating out at a restaurant, you come to…
In every day and age there have been certain cultural norms that are accepted and followed without much questioning.
For instance, when eating out at a restaurant, you come to expect that the family eating at the next table over will be using a fork and a knife. In a another example, it is not acceptable to show up at a family wedding wearing a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts.
The Catholic Church is no exception to these norms. It would be a strange start to Sunday Mass if the priest began processing down the aisle in a Halloween costume. As a Church we have come to assume and expect that our priest will begin Mass dressed in a certain manner.
The question then becomes: Why does Father wear what he wears at each Mass? And what is the history behind his style of dress?
Interestingly, you would think that the priestly vestments of today would find their origins in the ceremonial dress that is described in the Old Testament. For instance, in Exodus 28:2-4 we read: “For the glorious adornment of your brother Aaron you shall have sacred vestments made. Therefore, tell the various artisans whom I have endowed with skill to make vestments for Aaron to consecrate him as my priest. These are the vestments they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a brocade tunic, a turban, and a sash.”
Instead, the beginning of the holy vestments of the Christian Church came from the everyday garb of the Greco-Roman world. At the heart of this first-century dress was the tunic and the mantle.
The Greeks believed that the tunic that draped from the shoulder was symbolic of the body and its movements. They believed that this enveloping cloak around the body with the head in the center expressed the spiritual and intellectual perfection of man.
In the Roman world, during the second century, the dalmatic, which was a loose, unbelted tunic with very wide sleeves, came about. It was the outer garment worn over the long white tunic. Interestingly, it was striped and for the most part is the outer garment still worn by Catholic deacons today.
By the fourth century, garments worn at liturgical functions had been separated from those of everyday life. Priests could be distinguished by certain ornamentation added to the everyday dress. It was also at this time that the stole began to be used as official symbols of the holy priesthood.
The first mention of a special liturgical garment for sacred worship comes from Theodoret of Cyrus (d. c. 457). In his writing on Church history he noted that, in 330, Emperor Constantine presented to the new church in Jerusalem a sacred robe which was to be used by the bishop at baptisms and the Easter Vigil.
Documents during this time also reflected the fact that many were divided on the question of special liturgical vestments. For instance, the early Christian author Tertullian rejected special dress while Clement of Alexandria advocated it. Pope Clement I, during his pontificate in the first century, noted, “Bishops should be distinguished from the people by costume but not doctrine.”
By the ninth century, the plain vestments of old tended to be more and more elaborately decorated. It was here when pontifical gloves appeared. The miter or the ceremonial headdress most commonly seen on the heads of bishops came about in the 10th century. Liturgical shoes and stockings worn by bishops and cardinals appeared in the 11th century.
The priest of today who is vested for Mass is a wonderful witness to these historical roots. The fact that the sacred vestments were not worn in everyday life from their beginnings shows that they have possessed a liturgical character.
Today the draping form of the vestments such as the alb, the dalmatic and the chasuble puts the emphasis on his liturgical role. As such, the priest’s body is “hidden” in a way that takes him away as the center of the liturgical action and recognizes the true source and summit of the celebration, Jesus Christ. The priest thus dons the vestments not in his own name by rather in persona Christi.
A priest of the Latin rite today, then, wears the vestments that are prescribed by Church regulations, in keeping with the norms established by the local bishops’ conferences and especially the regulations given by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which stipulates that the required vestments are to signify that “in the Church, which is the Body of Christ, not all members have the same function. This diversity of offices is shown outwardly in the celebration of the Eucharist by the diversity of sacred vestments, which must therefore be a sign of the function proper to each minister. Moreover, these same sacred vestments should also contribute to the decoration of the sacred action itself.” (no. 335).
The GIRM adds, “It is fitting that the beauty and nobility of each vestment not be sought in an abundance of overlaid ornamentation, but rather in the material used and in the design. Ornamentation on vestments should, moreover, consist of figures, that is, of images or symbols, that denote sacred use, avoiding anything unbecoming to this.” (no. 344).
It starts with purple and ends with green, and there is a white and red in between. What do the different colors used by the priest signify? As outlined by the Church, different colors represent different liturgical seasons. Since around the sixth century, the primary liturgical colors have been green, white, purple, red and black.
Green signifies Ordinary Time in the Church. It must be noted that the shades of green can vary. For instance, the green of spring is a different shade than that of November as the Church year ends.
Purple is worn during Advent and Lent, representing the penitential sense of those seasons. Similar to purple is the color rose, which is worn just two Sundays throughout the year. First is the Third Sunday of Advent, otherwise known as Gaudete Sunday. During Lent it is worn during the Fourth Sunday, otherwise known as Laetare Sunday.
White denotes times of great celebration as seen in the Christmas and Easter seasons. White vestments are also worn at baptisms, weddings, ordinations and feast days of the Lord, the Blessed Mother and saints who are not martyrs.
Red implies the blood of Christ, the Holy Spirit and the martyrs. It is put on by the priest on Pentecost and for confirmations.
Black, rarely seen, can be worn during the Office of the Dead. It may also be worn on Good Friday.
What would the Christmas season be without carols? These seasonal songs seem to greet us everywhere this time of year with their familiar melodies and lyrics. Though we may know…
What would the Christmas season be without carols? These seasonal songs seem to greet us everywhere this time of year with their familiar melodies and lyrics. Though we may know the first verse and the refrain of a number of Christmas carols, do we know the origin of these songs we sing each December?
The singing of psalms and songs of praise in worship dates back to earliest Christian times, of course, a tradition with roots in Jewish religious custom. Hymns written especially in honor of Christ’s birth first appeared in the early centuries, such as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” composed by the Latin poet Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-413).
Over time, the repertoire of Latin chant that developed for use in the Mass came to include propers written especially for the Nativity and nearby celebrations on the Church calendar, such as Advent and Epiphany. Their words were based on Scripture and other sacred texts.
Popular Dance Songs
The kind of popular song we would typically call a “Christmas carol” today, however, had different origins. The word “carol” probably comes from the French carole, a circle dance accompanied by singing, often with a verse and refrain pattern.
Up through the later Middle Ages, caroles were thus typically dance music for communal celebrations. But eventually they were used also as processional songs during religious festivals and as accompaniment for religious mystery plays.
Only later did they come to be sung in churches and associated with Christmas in particular.
The singing of popular Christmas tunes received a boost from St. Francis of Assisi. In 1223 he formed a living Nativity scene on the outskirts of town, inviting the children of his village to come see the crèche while he taught them simple songs to honor the coming of the Lord.
This new December custom grew larger and more ornate each year, spreading throughout Europe, with each culture adding its own local customs to the celebrations. Carols were composed and learned by the common folk wherever the crèche and seasonal plays were performed.
To the chagrin of some local parish priests, many of these new Christmas carols borrowed melodies from well-known drinking songs. Clergy in some places opposed their being sung.
But the joy of singing carols was infectious and unstoppable. Bands of traveling singers and musicians, or carolers, as they would come to be known, performed on street corners, in taverns and in homes in village after village.
Outlawed, Then Welcome Again
After the Protestant Reformation, which began in the 16th century, Lutherans followed the lead of their founder, the German Martin Luther (1483-1546), who encouraged his congregations to sing the popular songs of the Christmas season. But the 17th-century English Puritans outlawed the singing of Christmas carols, viewing them as popish holdovers.
Nevertheless, English Catholics (and no doubt some less strict Anglicans as well) continued to sing carols privately, such as “The First Noel” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”
After the passing of the Puritans from power in England, several 18th-century Anglican composers produced joyous hymns for the season. For example, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) wrote “Joy to the World”; John Francis Wade (c. 1711-1786), “O Come, All Ye Faithful”; and Charles Wesley (1707-1788), “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
During this time, the distinction between Christmas carols (popular songs for informal singing) and Christmas hymns (composed by skilled churchmen for formal use in worship) began to be blurred. Carols came to be sung in church, and hymns outside of liturgical settings.
Christmas carols of all types experienced a renaissance in England, America and elsewhere during the 19th century.
Some of the most familiar carols we sing today were composed at that time, such as “Silent Night,” “Away in a Manger,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Sleep, Holy Babe,” “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and “What Child Is This” (using an old English melody, “Greensleeves”).
When the English Queen Victoria married her cousin Prince Albert of Germany in 1840, it became known that the royal couple was quite fond of Christmas carols. In an attempt to gain royal favor, numerous families and church groups came to the royal palace to sing for them.
Like the enthusiastic troubadours of past centuries, these English carolers of the Victorian age took to the streets of London with their songs.
In the United States, it was Lutheran and Methodist congregations, especially, who made carols popular both in worship and in the culture at large. By the end of the Civil War, caroling had become a way for many denominations to evangelize beyond their four church walls. Caroling groups brought joy to the sick and the homebound with their musical visits.
These days caroling groups have been replaced in many ways by recorded Christmas music. Yet the sight of a group of carolers at the shopping mall or in the neighborhood still brings the season to life and is a reminder of the true meaning of the celebration.
Eddie O’Neill writes from Green Bay, Wis., where he works as a producer for Relevant Radio (www.relevantradio.com).
For any student of the Bible, it doesn’t take long to see that certain numbers appear throughout both the Old and New Testament. For instance, there are the 12 tribes…
For any student of the Bible, it doesn’t take long to see that certain numbers appear throughout both the Old and New Testament.
For instance, there are the 12 tribes of Israel and the Twelve Apostles. God rested on the seventh day of creation in Genesis, and one cannot forget the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12.
What is the story behind all these numerals? Why do they appear again and again? For us as Catholics, do numbers mean more?
The practice of interpreting numbers is nothing unique in religious history. Cultures have applied meaning to numbers since the beginning of civilization. However, numbers found in the Bible have taken on mystical meaning across the centuries.
Assigning meaning to numbers in the Bible is an ancient practice known as gematria, a Greek term meaning calculation. It is based on numbers which are assigned to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Gematria is thus the calculation of those letters, which translate into words or phrases. By assigning a numerical value to a word or phrase, it is believed that two words with the same numerical value have some significant meaning to each other or simply to the number itself. Numbers thus have a key role in understanding God’s role in the universe.
For instance, the number 40 is used throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Noah was afloat during the Great Flood for 40 days and 40 nights (see Gn 7), Moses and the Israelites spent 40 years in the desert and Jesus was tempted by Satan for 40 days (Mk 1:13). Jewish tradition has it that the number 40 represented a time of transition where an extraordinary event occurs.
Enter the Church Fathers
Around the second century, the Church Fathers — those who clarified or passed on Christian doctrine — were quite familiar with this Jewish tradition of assigning numerical meaning to words or phrases. However, they condemned the use of numbers as having some magical significance. Instead, they taught that the numbers found in the Holy Scriptures were full of mystical meaning which could be interpreted for deeper significance.
For instance, St. Augustine, in a letter replying to Tichonius the Donatist, said, “If Tichonius had said that these mystical rules open up some of the hidden recesses of the law, instead of saying that they reveal all the mysteries of the law, he would have spoken truth.”
As well, it would have been around these first centuries of Christianity that the formal rituals which related to public worship and the Mass were taking shape. The question to ask then would be: Is there numeric symbolism in the sacrifice of the Mass or in some of the prayers for Catholics? The answer is yes.
For instance, as Catholics, we have the threefold penitential right — Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison — and the Agnus Dei, or Lamb of God. Outside of the Mass, we have a certain number of Masses that are offered for the dead. The Latin word novena is the root for our novenas. These nine days of prayer are thought to be based on the time that Mary and the disciples prayed in the Upper Room before the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Finally, if one wants to pray a 54-day Rosary Novena they will end up praying six full novenas. The first three should be offered for a particular intention and the last three novenas offered in thanksgiving.
In short, when it comes to numbers in the Bible and in Catholic tradition, nothing is coincidence.
Eddie O’Neill writes from New Castle, Colo.