Sunday, 28 February 2010

The S. Joseph altar is up!

I'm lucky enough to have not only a fairly decent name day (S. Joseph. March 19th) with plenty of customs and traditions attached to it, I actually get the entire month of March to celebrate my patron saint. However, since I couldn't wait for March to actually begin, I have already assembled my S. Joseph's altar, to begin my devotion a little earlier this year.

Strong devotion to S. Joseph is found in various localities in southern Europe, and is the origin, for example, of the famous Falles festival in Valencia. However, in Sicily this devotion is centred on the S. Joseph altar, and the communal meal which takes places around it. Traditionally, a votive shrine, or "altar" would be constructed in homes or churches some time before march 19th, and blessed by the local priest. This altar is redolent with symbolism. For example, the altar is generally three-tiered to represent the Blessed Trinity, and is topped by a statue or image of S. Joseph or the Holy Family. The image is flanked by palms to represent those palms thrown before Christ on the first Palm Sunday. Images of other saints or deceased relatives are commonly placed on the altar to represent our belief in our communion with the saints and those who have died in the faith. Special breads are baked in special shapes : a monstrance is popular, or indeed any item associated with S. Joseph, such as a saw or a carpenter's square. A plate of fish represents the Apostles (fishing for men), and limes or lemons represent God's bounty on earth. Another plate will contain bread-crumbs, served as a topping for pasta instead of cheese and an allusion to saw-dust, and another will hold fava beans. The story goes that in the Middle Ages, the Sicilians suffered a severe famine, and prayed to their patron to save them from starvation, promising a great feast if he could intercede for them. It then occured to someone to try to survive on fava beans, which had previously only been used to provide animal feed. By switching to this plentiful and cheap crop, the Sicilians survived the famine and had their feast. To this day fava beans feature on the S. Joseph's altar in memory of this miracle.

So far my altar only features on or two of these items, but I've set it up in my bedroom in time to begin the Novena prayers before the feast (well in time...), and it will eventually be taken downstairs to grace my dining table on the 19th for a celebration of my name day.

Since March is the month of S. Joseph, why not make your own home altar? Alternatively you, there is an online virtual S. Joseph altar with information, prayers and recipes , and you can even virtually donate foodstuffs to the altar!

Friday, 5 February 2010

On my Birthday

It's probably just as well my parents didn't call me Agatha after the saint on whose feast I was born; I was teased enough at school. As it happened, I was going to be Alexander, "defender of man", but my great-grandfather's death shortly before I was born meant that I inherited the name of Joseph Spouse of Mary, and with it, the nickname Joe. So I was lumbered with the unfortunate name of Joe Smith, somewhere between John Smith and Joe Bloggs, but not quite as distinctive as either one of those anecdotal generic names. It took years of plumming out my accent and developing a more sensitive gait before I could convince my peers to address me as Joseph, and I'm still thinking of ditching Smith. It's a natural desire in many people to try to define themselves in some way against the collective so they stand out, and their individuality is recognised and accepted.

Among the hundreds of young female martyrs in the Church's first three centuries, some really do stick out, and their vitae have been made even more distinctive by subsequent generations who seek to honour them as their own. This seems to have happened to S. Agatha of Sicily, who died in Catania around 251 AD. Iconographic depictions of the saint have picked out of the tortures the most distinctively horrific one of this young girl having her breats cut off, and so it is that in many images of her, S. Agatha is pictured either undergoing this torture or carrying her breasts on a plate. S. Agatha is also one of seven women, excluding Our Blessed Lady who is mentioned by name in the Roman Canon, and so like S. Agnes whose feast we kept recently, we receive a special reminder that her prayers are joined with ours during the Holy Sacrifice.
I hope readers of this blog will pray for me on my twenty fifth birthday! I feel more and more like I need it in these uncertain days. This blog has always been a welcome distraction from some of the stresses of life, and also a source of pleasure to know that people are reading and enjoying the posts. God bless you, and may S. Agatha pray for you.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Society of King Charles the Martyr

The thirtieth of January is marked in post-restoration editions of the Book of Common Prayer as a memorial for the Church of England's first martyr-saint, King Charles I. While many persist in seeing the King's mock trial and execution as just another historical event in the political history of England, for those in the Church, Charles was a martyr because he died in defence of the Faith; it was his refusal to give in to protestant demands for the suppression of the episcopate in the Church of England that he was lead finally to the scaffold.

The Society of King Charles the Martyr is a devotional society in the Church of England founded in 1894 to promote the cult of the English Church's martyr-king. It has been their tradition to hold an act of remembrance each year on the anniversary of his martyrdom in that very place where the King was executed : the Banqueting House on London's Whitehall. This year's event was very well attended, with around 200 communicants at the High Mass.

Dr Colin Podmore processes in, wearing the Oxon DPhil chimere appropriate to his academic rank. Dr Podmore delivered a very well-received sermon touching on the Catholic integrity of the Church of England and her episcopacy, and speaking about the threats posed to it.

For the Mass, an altar was erected under the canopy. Here you can see the sacred ministers saying the preparatory prayers of the Mass, in this case the Our Father and Collect for Purity. Liturgists will be interested to know that the rite was largely BCP (including the Scottish 1637 prayer of consecration) with some Missal material and chanted propers for the feast.

As you can see here, the Society's relics of King Charles were exposed on the altar during the Mass.

The Sursum Corda

The procession from the altar, here you can see the Society's banner, and get some idea of how many were in attendance.

And finally, yours truly, having a chat with Abba Seraphim al-Suryani, Metropolitan of Glastonbury, and Abuna Peter, one of his priests from the British Orthodox Church under the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. My liturgical function at this event was as "chaplain" to our distinguished guests. We were entertained to a lovely lunch afterwards by Fr. Andrew Crosbie, who served as Deacon of the Mass and who was heavily involved in organising the liturgy.