Blog Template Theology of the Body: December 2008

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Two recent articles worth a read

I ran across these two articles and found them both interesting. The first, is an article by an atheist in the London Times claiming that Africa needs Christianity. An absolute must read and a nice piece of intellectual honesty.

The second is an article in the NY Times confirming that religion is good for self-control.

The interesting thing about both articles is that the authors seem to think that religion is a good (and Christianity in particular in the first), but can't seem to wonder if it might be good for them too. The question they can't seem to ask themselves is (to paraphrase our current Pope), "What if it is true?" It would seem odd to think that Christianity is good if it isn't also true; in fact, no matter what the societal benefits, it would seem almost demonic if it was false, for then people would be acting in great self-delusion.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Days of Christmas

From our contributor NCCatholic:

"The Twelve Days of Christmas:" this is one Christmas Carol that has always baffled me. What in the world do leaping lords, French hens, swimming swans, and especially the partridge who won't come out of the pear tree have to do with Christmas? Recently, I found out.

From 1558 until 1829, Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. Someone during that era wrote this carol as a catechism song for young Catholics. It has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning, plus a hidden meaning known only to members of their church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a tenet of the faith which children could remember.

- The partridge in a pear tree: Jesus Christ.

- Two turtle doves: the Old and New Testaments.

- Three French hens: the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.

- The four calling birds: the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John.

- The five golden rings: the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.

- The six geese a-laying: the six days of creation.

- Seven swans a-swimming: the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit--Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership and Mercy.

- The eight maids a-milking: the eight beatitudes.

- Nine ladies dancing: the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit--Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self Control.

- The ten lords a-leaping: the ten commandments.

- The eleven pipers piping: the eleven faithful disciples.

- The twelve drummers drumming: the twelve points of belief in the Apostles' Creed.

Monday, December 22, 2008

"Merry Christmas" as Let Earth Receive Her King

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and our hands have touched- this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. I John 1.

Christmas comes this week; and now we remember that the virtues of Advent hope, peace, and joy point beyond themselves to the reality of Christmas- literally, of the Mass that is said to honor Christ, who has come in the flesh. Christmas is above all the celebration of the Incarnation of God.

This is the Christmas gospel: for the sake of our salvation, God has taken on forever every facet of our human existence- conception, dependent infancy, youth, family life, death- and He has returned it all to His Father. And thus the Catholic construal does not posit an idea of grace as a kind force that is foreign to us, which displaces and rejects the creature in order to replace it with something else. Rather, the Incarnation means that the very life of God has been infused into our very flesh, into the lineage of David, from the dust of the earth which forms the rocks that would cry out to their Creator if mankind did not. We believe that the coming Kingdom of God is advanced with every prophetic moment of that peculiar creaturely cooperation with the Creator made possible by the definitive work of grace that began in and from the womb of Mary. At Christmas we recall the fundamental thing: as prophesied and promised for long ages, our God is indeed Emmanuel. And thus it is of the essence of the Christian faith to rejoice at Christmas in the fact that God's Incarnation has changed everything. The promise of the Emmanuel is actually become true; our God is really with us.

If God is to be God with us, it is no unreasonable leap to rejoice that He is God with us, abiding in all the tabernacles of the world, from which comes the grace that flows through the waters of baptism, through the laying on of hands, through the bodies of man and wife, through the oils of unction. As the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer once put it in The Cost of Discipleship, the body of Christ which was born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger takes up space on earth. As God with us, His presence and His grace remain with us in real ways, open in love to our sight, our taste, our touch. It is not the case that the Lord of the dusty Judean roads, the Gallilean Sea, and the Last Supper is now only amenable to the spoken word, the written text, and the pious memory. The Incarnation has consequences; He is with us.

At Christmas, the Christian's worship is imitated by the world's anonymous, inevitable, inadvertent witness to God's gentle invasion of His world's weary spinning. Our Advent candles have been joined by a billion little light bulbs, our gratitude for divine mercy is imitated by the annual round of generous gift giving, our Eucharist is mimicked by the joyous feasting in every holiday home. The world makes space for Christmas. At Christmas, we visibly rejoice in the one God, who in Christ has forever taken up our space. Even so, Lord Jesus come.

Merry Christmas to you all!

Merry Christmas for Us and Ours

Perhaps more than at any other time of the year, Christmas turns our hearts to the great gift of life in family, which our Lord has consecrated by His own birth into a human family. In celebration of family, my father sent my mother and sister and I off to Manhattan last week for a few days together of Christmas time in the city. We enjoyed the lights, the storefronts, and the opportunity to sing Christmas carols in unexpected places. 

What I enjoyed most were a few moments of watching the strong, protective gestures of a mother as she and my sister huddled close at the outset of a small northeastern blizzard. I think that it may be in such little gestures of trust and protection that we recall most poignantly that our omnipotent Lord has entrusted Himself to us in His Incarnation; the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us... precisely to walk with us, in our wintry days.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Living in Advent Joy

My childhood friend Mrs. J. providentially lives close enough for what is becoming an annual Advent visit. Our friendship has always been a wide horizon of inspiration and adventure for me; when we were kids, this meant climbing steep heights and exploring depths, whether on trees, stages, or airplane trips to exciting places with our friends and families. Now she encourages and inspires me with every glimpse into her beautiful life as a mother.

Baby Heidi joined us in a baby way in evangelical cookie-baking last year; this year, this adorable little girl was grown up enough for a girl's night out to dinner and a play, followed by a fun visit to the library. As you can see, she is on to some joyous adventures of her own.

"Merry Christmas" as The Light to Enlighten the Nations

I love Christmas lights. When I lived on a distant coast a few years ago, I loved the enormous UNICEF snowflake hanging over Fifth and Madison in Manhattan, which, by the way, is composed entirely of Baccurat crystal, and I've always loved the humbler lit garlands at the Yale Club. And most of all, I now love the neighborhood Christmas lights of Dallas- homespun works of art that make the magical shapes of the trees stand out in stark celebration against the night sky. I love it.

It seems to me that like all publicly displayed Christmas decorations, neighborhood Christmas lights strike a small chord of anxiety in the hearts of a lot of serious Christians. We wonder, do the good people who bedeck their storefronts and homefronts for Christmas know Christ? Do they know that He is "the reason for the season"? And if they do not, why are they parading around as though they did? After all, Christmas is properly our holiday; Christmas is the natal celebration for those who will in a few short months commemorate a Crucifixion.

I so often get the sense that we Christians want to urge the waiting world at Christmas, "hold on a minute. This is our holiday. It is serious and spiritual, and you clearly do not understand it. Please do not mess with it. Don't commercialize it, exploit it, or dilute it. This is about our Christ, and if you don't know Him, why are you acting as though you did?" In fact, in an effort to avoid the "world's" seemingly cheapened holidays, we Christians may anxiously turn our attention to "reforming" Christmas, asceticizing it, "putting Christ back into Christmas," etc. Does this ring a bell?

But I love the fact that at Christmas all the world rejoices. I really love the fact that every Tom, Dick and Harry gets caught up in this most accessible of "our" holidays. In fact, it is most right that everyone joins in at the Christian's Christmas, regardless of the state of their present salvation/sanctification/enlightenment. Because Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnationof God, Christmas truly is for all people. God Himself, the Creator of the Universe, took on (universal) human flesh and the entirety of human experience at His conception and birth. This event is not only the beginning of the hope that is consummated at Calvary; it is the objective, effective beginning of our salvation.

The early Fathers had much to say about the idea that the Incarnation itself is redemptive, in as much as the original intimacy between humanity and God is restored by the simple fact of God uniting our own flesh and reality entirely to Himself in Jesus of Nazareth. Because of the Incarnation, all people are already in some sense united with Christ, and are re-created and re-dignified by Him. As Athanasius puts it in De Incarnatione Verbi 54, by God's Incarnation the image of God is already in some way restored to humanity in general: “for He was made man that we might be made God… He descends that we may ascend, without in any way losing His oneness with the Father, He descends to infuse our perishing flesh with Himself… so that we ascend to share in His unity with the Father (as those who do not have this substance by nature.” Aquinas follows suit: "from the beginning of His conception Christ merited our eternal salvation." Summa Theologiae III.48.1

Thus in the mere reality of Christ's Incarnation all who merely share Christ's human flesh are raised a bit nearer to Heaven and to the heart of God. And as the angels put it, "in the town of Bethlehem is born to you this day a Savior... which shall be to all people."

...So let the whole weary world rejoice in its rather kitschy and bedecked way, and let the unbaptized, unwashed masses adorn their lawns, and let whosoever will enjoy the implicit celebration of the Savior of the world. In the sheer grace of Christ having assumed our nature, His salvation is in some way already theirs...our's...everyone's.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Living in Advent Peace: He has taken away your sins

Confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. 
James 5:16

"There is perhaps no other time that the priest feels so deeply the sense of that fatherhood which gives him his title. A child of God speaks the words, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned…” and in the quiet of the confessional the power of Christ is stirred for the renewal of the soul. That which was broken is healed. What was so heavy at the time of coming is lifted. It is its own magnum mysterium as new birth is once more imparted to the penitent. The divine hears through the human ear. The fruits of Calvary are applied, and the waters of baptism flow once again over the sullied soul. In the confessional we are made young again. As a child is brought to the font, so the soul is presented to our Lord for Him to do His work. And when it is done, those happy words: “Go in peace, for the Lord has taken away your sins.”

HT: Atonement Online, the diary of the rector at the Catholic Anglican Use parish of Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio, Texas.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Living in Advent Peace: Pope Benedict Affirms and Qualifies Luther

"...if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing...And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." I Corinthians 13.

VATICAN CITY, NOV. 19, 2008: Martin Luther hollered "Sola Fide!" several centuries ago. The Pope says this is true, if sola fide does not exclude the necessity of love.

More from

Benedict XVI says Martin Luther's doctrine on justification is correct, if faith "is not opposed to charity."

The Pope said this today during the general audience dedicated to another reflection on St. Paul. This time, the Holy Father considered the Apostle's teaching on justification.

He noted that Paul's conversion experience on the road to Damascus "changed his life radically: He began to regard all his merits, achievements of a most honest religious career, as 'loss' in face of the sublimity of knowledge of Jesus Christ."

"It is precisely because of this personal experience of the relationship with Jesus that Paul places at the center of his Gospel an irreducible opposition between two alternative paths to justice: one based on the works of the law, the other founded on the grace of faith in Christ," the Pontiff explained. "The alternative between justice through the works of the law and justice through faith in Christ thus becomes one of the dominant themes that runs through his letters."

But in order to understand this Pauline teaching, Benedict XVI affirmed, "we must clarify what is the 'law' from which we have been freed and what are those 'works of the law' that do not justify."

He explained: "Already in the community of Corinth there was the opinion, which will return many times in history, which consisted in thinking that it was a question of the moral law, and that Christian freedom consisted therefore in being free from ethics. [...] It is obvious that this interpretation is erroneous: Christian liberty is not libertinism; the freedom of which St. Paul speaks is not freedom from doing good."

Instead, the Pope said, the law to which Paul refers is the "collection of behaviors extending from an ethical foundation to the ritual and cultural observances that substantially determined the identity of the just man -- particularly circumcision, the observance regarding pure food and general ritual purity, the rules regarding observance of the Sabbath, etc."

These observances served to protect Jewish identity and faith in God; they were "a defense shield that would protect the precious inheritance of the faith," he remarked.

But, the Holy Father continued, at the moment of Paul's encounter with Christ, the Apostle "understood that with Christ's resurrection the situation had changed radically."

"The wall -- so says the Letter to the Ephesians -- between Israel and the pagans was no longer necessary," he said. "It is Christ who protects us against polytheism and all its deviations; it is Christ who unites us with and in the one God; it is Christ who guarantees our true identity in the diversity of cultures; and it is he who makes us just. To be just means simply to be with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Other observances are no longer necessary."

And it is because of this, the Bishop of Rome continued, that Luther's expression "by faith alone" is true "if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into his love."

"Paul knows," he added, "that in the double love of God and neighbor the whole law is fulfilled. Thus the whole law is observed in communion with Christ, in faith that creates charity. We are just when we enter into communion with Christ, who is love."


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

"Merry Christmas" as I Know that My Redeemer Lives

We celebrated the Feast of jolly St. Nicholas this past week. As the patron saint of children, he is also one of the fathers of the 4th century Council of Nicaea- we believe... in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

Have you noticed that Christmas is all about children? It seems to be a foregone conclusion in our culture that they are the ones who know and can most fully enter the spirit of the season, such that adults are beckoned by every storefront and candy cane and bit of tinsel to participate annually in their glee (rather than the other way around, for once); and if for some reason we cannot enter easily into the life of a child, we sigh and hope that we might dutifully catch some of that properly childlike Christmas abandon sometime soon.

Think about the Christmas cinema: it’s Tiny Tim, and Natalie of 44th Street, and that little girl on It’s a Wonderful Life who can really comprehend The Mystery while everyone else frets at Christmas. And, I believe, we all sort of envy the Griswold family for their childish Christmas antics. Who really wants to be a deliberating and reserved grown-up on Christmas morning?

There’s something very true about the whole impulse; this is the time when we celebrate the fact that our Creator entered into the life of a little child. And if we sometimes feel irked with ourselves at this time of year because we are too old and grumpy and stingy to experience Christmas time with childlike longing and heart skipping, we might recall that we are indeed supposed to enter into the life of the child, in the real way in which we are called to be like little children by Christ Himself.

(In each Gospel, Jesus’ endorsement of the little child is immediately juxtaposed against the sad tale of the rich young ruler who has everything, but who walks away from the child-embraced Christ. The stark social-economic reality is that children get to Jesus because they’ve got nothing to lose, and we remember- with a very adult sobriety, perhaps- that for us the true life of a child is one of renunciation, of the positioning of one’s self to be, like children, without property, without political status, and without legal rights with which to enforce our will against another. The idealized life of the little child is thus potentially rather terrifying. Hello, Kierkegaard.)

Of course, children are not so easily terrified; as is most pronounced in the midst of our adult Christmases, they believe.

G.K. Chesterton does not talk so much about the absence of atheists in foxholes in his work On Conversion; rather, he notes the total absence of atheists in the nursery. Have you ever met an agnostic child? I haven’t. Children love, and rejoice, and decorate, not because the world is rosy or because they have found adequate justification for their beliefs. They know and they love. It’s simple.

The whole world wants to be pretty simple at Christmas too. I drive down the highway and I see billboards plastered with single-word sentiments at this time of year: “Peace!”… “Joy!”…About what? Downtown, there are little trees covered with lights. Why? People scramble to spend money creatively and congregate in ways that would otherwise appear idiotic. What are they playing at? You see how incongruous these nasty questions seem in context. “It’s Christmas” (the world replies)- “that’s why!”

It may be that Christmas is when the whole weary world, from east to west, bares its most childlike, latent intuitions and its most simple, heartfelt impulses. This is the time when it makes no sense to ask qualifying questions; this is the time that we all simply know, and that we all love, just because. This is the time when the most secular of cultures reminds us that there is something to the fact that we all just simply know Christmas, and we all simply want Christmas in our hearts, on some level at least; and if we do not know and love Christmas when we see it, then there must be something- unchildlike - about our hearts.

(Keep the spirit of Christmas!… and you know what that means. -What, you don’t? Well then, you’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch…).

Richard Swinburne, one of the world’s best philosophers of religion, holds that glimmers of religious experience, sometimes encountered, constitute sufficient evidence- when combined with other cumulative clues to the existence of God- that is adequate to defeat even the verifiable detractor of the monumental problem of evil. I asked him about the content of this religious experience, which so many people anticipate with longing, like children waiting for Christmas. I have heard so many non Christian friends confide that they would gladly believe if God would just give them a sign, or if He would just make Himself clear enough for real rational assent. They want proof; they want something to justify that God-sense in their gut. Don’t we all? …And is this elusive “religious experience” best defined as consolation? Or the presence of hope? Or is it mere perseverence? How will we rationally evaluate it when it comes? My philosopher of religion pointed out how incongruous these questions seem in context. When you've met God, you just know.

Look around you: it’s Christmas time. Why all the fuss? Why this longing in our hearts to rejoice and have peace, and to have it now? -Well, it’s Christmas, that’s why.

Self evidence: We just know what we seek, and we just know when we are met by the God who made us. We know and we love. It’s simple. And every year at Christmas, the rest of the world endorses the Christian intuition as it joins us in this very simple experience of childlike knowing and celebrating, impulsively turning out Christmas because of the quiet mystery of the Incarnation of God. The world is full of childlike little people who simply know and love at Christmas time, and who wait breathlessly.

Argue with that one, Mr. Grinch.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Living in Advent Peace: Celebrating the Immaculate Conception

At Christms, perhaps most of all times in the year, Christians recall that our Lord has a mother. With her Son, Mary of Nazareth presents a stumbling block to the world’s fads and decadence; and far too often, her images and tradition of devotion present an offense to Protestantism’s scruples and proper avoidance of idolatry. So at this juncture of the year, we might ask, what does all the fuss about Mary really mean?

Mary means many things to the Church, who honors her as its prototype. Mary is the instantiation of the New Testament promise that “by grace you have been saved by faith; and that not of yourselves- it is the gift of God, not by works, lest any man should boast.” We celebrate Mary because she is the one first saved by the prevenient and supremely efficacious grace of her Creator and Savior, and in her profoundly simple person we see the personal model of the promise that we can ultimately be saved by grace alone. Above all others, Mary has nothing that she has not received.

In the Gospel account, notice that the angel of the Lord does not hail Mary as being “full of merit,” but merely, “full of grace.” Mary’s appropriate response in her Magnificat is to proclaim the greatness of God, who has looked with mercy on her own lowliness. And that is precisely why she is rightly exalted. In the Church’s belief that Mary was preserved by grace from the moment of her conception in view of her motherhood of Jesus, the one Redeemer of the world, we confess that because Mary is most clearly God’s handiwork, we pay attention to Mary because we live in the hope of the same work. In other words, Mary is Christian soteriology personified.

These proposals are developed beautifully by Bl. Duns Scotus, who wrote of Mary’s Immaculate Conception in his twelfth century Ordinatio. Scotus explains that Mary enjoyed real sanctification in view of the imputed merits of her son, by which she was protected from original sin from the very moment of her conception. In this regard, Mary was the prime recipient of the imputation of the merits of Christ, both in temporal terms as well as in qualitative and quantitative terms; this is clarified by Scotus’ ensuing explanation that Mary is the most redeemed and most sanctified, by being the one to whom Christ’s merit is most imputed:

It was evident that the door was open to her through the merits of Christ that were foreseen and accepted in a special way for this person, so that because of his passion this person was never in a state of sin…for thus God determined that although he had accepted the foreseen passion of Christ to remit original sin of all who have believe in that passion, nevertheless he only remitted that punishment due to the sin… for the sake of the passion he foresaw, since it was exhibited as present.

Scotus thus describes Mary’s redemption as the most perfect instance of the imputation of Christ’s merit; hers is a unique reception of imputation so strong that it ontologically transforms her and sets her apart from every other creature:

For a most perfect mediator has a most perfect act of mediation, possible with respect to some person for whom he intercedes… (And) with respect to no person did He have a more excellent degree than regards Mary… because He merited to preserve her from original sin.

Thomas Aquinas, drawing directly from Augustine, agrees with this notion of Mary’s preeminent privilege in her redemption, explicitly in Summa III.27 ad 2, and implicitly when considering another issue in Super Psalmos 51: “also the mercy of God is reckoned among those things because it removes sins. But it is better that it should be removed all together.” In sum, Aquinas agrees with Scotus that “it is a more excellent benefit to preserve one from evil than to permit one to fall into it and then free such.” In other words, Scotus reasons that if coming into being in the state of original sin is the greatest punishment possible for a child of Adam, then the greatest instantiation of Christ’s redemption is the preservation and rescue of one creature from the greatest punishment; “therefore if Christ has reconciled us most perfectly to God, He has merited that this most grave punishment itself be taken from someone- His mother.”

In fact, given that Christ’s reparation and reconciliation remedy original sin even more immediately than actual sin, such that Christ is more urgently the Mediator for Mary and her preservation than for any other creature, Scotus concludes that Mary is more indebted to Christ for her redemption than any other creature:

Mary most of all needed Christ as a redeemer…He was so perfect a Mediator for some person- Mary- that he preserved her from original sin… from what persons reconciled owes the mediator, I argue in this way: a person reconciled is not obligated to the mediator in the highest way unless he or she has received from him the highest good that the mediator can give… no person is obligated in the highest degree to Christ as Mediator unless he has been preserved from original sin.

Thus, Mary, as most redeemed and perfected creature, is most indebted to Christ for her innocence. In sum, the Church believes that Mary was prevented from the stain of original sin by her Son’s sanctifying grace, which she gained in view of His passion and death. As Catholic scholar D.N. Cross puts it, “Jesus pays the debt that Mary would have incurred had Jesus not paid it… Jesus as it were pays His mother’s potential debt.” In this way, the perfectly assignable nature of Christ’s merit, and our dependence upon it, is highlighted by its retroactivity. And it is for this reason that Catholics rejoice with Mary, because with her, we know that we rejoice and boast in nothing other than in God our Savior, who alone is able to preserve us for Himself.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Living in Advent Hope: In the Church, Visible Sign of Invisible Glory

“Christ received (His) two consecrations… as Head and Chief of a restored humanity: the first consecrated Him as Priest, the second as Sanctifier or as Savior. Both are to overflow from Him upon all those who become His members and form His body, as the nervous impulses start from the head to move the whole body. Something parallel may be noted in the case of the third communicable privilege of Christ, His spiritual kingship over minds in the speculative and practical orders; which is to be poured out on men by means of the jurisdicational power. The Church thus appears as an extension to men of the communicable privileges of Christ. Taken in her fullness and perfection she results from a triple incorporation of men into Christ their Head by way of influx into them of something of His priesthood, something of His grace, and something of His truth. She participates in the privileges of Christ… Her mission (thus) will not be simply to recall memories, however great and divine they may be, but really and efficaciously to continue through space and time the first initiative taken by Christ in inaugurating on the threshold of the last age a new worship, communicating a grace that of itself looks to the redemption of the world, and openly and authoritatively proclaims the message of deliverance to human minds.” 
Journet 59.

Living in Advent Hope: ... with Mary, Pledge of Christ's Victory

Because Christians live in the hope of that which is possessed already... because Mary is therefore called the heart of the Church, in as much as she uniquely knows and reveals the victory of her Son. Here is a triumphant and beautiful retrospect by Fr. Will Brown.

"Mary is a pledge of the victory that Christ has won for us on the cross. Having already fully reaped the benefits of Christ’s passion, having had her redemption sealed in the resurrection of her body, she shows to us the grace, the beauty, and the power of an intimate union with Jesus. She shows us our own destiny as children of God and as heirs with Christ of the promises of the Father: Mary shows us what it looks like to be a finite creature wrapped, by grace and faith and love, in God’s very own infinity.

Rather, Mary is presently an icon of what we are called to be be, by the grace of God. In the future, at the end of time, our perfection will be completed, even as hers has already been completed, when our deliverance from sin and death will be eternally sealed by the resurrection of our bodies, the loosing of the bonds of physical corruption and decay, to which we and everything in the material universe is presently subjected. As St. Paul says: the last enemy to be destroyed by Christ, is death itself (1 Corinthians 15.26). And when our Lord’s victory over death is sealed by the resurrection of our bodies, at Christ’s second coming, then – but not till then – we too will come into our inheritance – the inheritance of his glory, of divinity, of incorruptibility, and of life everlasting. Then we too will be crowned with glory and immortality, even as Mary has already been crowned (2 Timothy 4.8 & Rev. 12.1).

Mary’s greatness is her exaltation is a reflection of Christ’s greater exaltation. And Mary’s exaltation makes a difference because she is an icon of ourselves. In looking at her, in contemplating her, we see something about ourselves, something about our own relationship with God, about who we are and about who we are called to be in relationship to Christ. Understanding Mary to be the Immaculate Virgin-Mother of God who even now participates intimately in Christ’s own redeeming work – this understanding is an affirmation of what is possible for us through him when we assent with Mary to God’s call to us, when we open our hearts to the overflow of his grace in our lives. When we venerate Mary for her assent to the call of God in her life, we are in some measure assenting to the call of God in our own lives, and we are affirming the gracious possibilities of our own vocations as children of God, as his servants and handmaidens; When we venerate Mary for her openness to the Holy Spirit of God, we are affirming the possibility of the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us, enabling us to minister Christ to this broken world, through our assent to God’s call.

When we say to God, with Mary, “Be it done to me according to thy Word,” then we become, with Mary, “full of grace” – filled with his grace – then the Light of Christ that is the Life of the world and the glory of God, begins to shine inside of us - then we become bearers of God in the person of Jesus Christ. His grace and his power begin to flow through us, his light begins to shine in us; He suffers Himself to be brought by us to others in need of Him, to be born of us, to a world groaning for salvation."

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Harvey Milk and the Catholic Position on Homosexuality

In anticipation of Gus Van Sant's new film-

"Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction towards persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity (Genesis 19:1-29, Romans 1:24-27, I Corinthians 6:10, I Timothy 1:10), tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, and by the support of friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2357-2359.

Living in Advent Hope: Wherever You Are, I Am

Because Advent is the season of living our hope as the celebration of holding, now, all that Christ has already accomplished for us, of having nothing that we have not received, of proclaiming the salvation already accomplished.

Augustine’s favorite popular descriptor of the Christian church, as we find in his sermons, is that of a virgin bride, contracted in marriage by the conflated covenantal/inheritance structure neatly summarized in the tabulae matrimoniales. The family law of the classical Julian age required laborious negotiations between the father of the bride and the prospective son- in- law, which ultimately designated their own covenantal exchange of goods (in bride price and dowry) that culminated in the body of the bride.

While the Roman law of St. Augustine’s time excluded the bride from the commercial negotiations in anticipation of her wedding, the law expectantly required the waiting bride to signify her public and free consent to the contract arranged between her betrothed husband and father. She showed her legal consent in multiple and recurring ways.

She would have worn her betrothed’s bronze rings, symbolizing the durability and frugality of the empire that her household would constitute. She would have clasped his hand publicly, face- to- face, in symbolic declaration of fidelity. And lastly, following even the ratification of the detailed deed of purchase by which she was bestowed upon her husband at his wedding, she had to pause one last time on the threshold of her husband’s home for her final and free public act of consent to his nuptial invitation, without which no legal marriage could take place. She said Quando Tu, Ego: whenever and wherever you are, I am then and I am there… wherever you are, I am.

I think it’s a fascinating statement, linguistically. Quando is a Latinate free-for-all. The word is a potential interrogative, carrying within it a multitude of ongoing questions: Who are you?... Where are you?... Who will you become? It’s also a relative adverb, conditioned by the data of times and places beyond control, relativized by a dozen possible particles that may alter its construal in grammatical structures. And the word is also a conjunction, situated tentatively in the immediate place between all that has gone before, on the one hand, and, on the other, the moment wherein the bride pauses for breath before her final statement.

The bride's response to this tentative, broadly contingent qualifier is so simple. For herself, she must speak with the starkest clarity of a unilateral promise that stands in relation to one contingency alone and none other. She alone seals the nuptial contract with the all-consuming self-reference of the singular being verb: I am.

Amen; the nuptial covenant is complete.

Patristics scholar John Cavadini has suggested that the Fathers work in images as much as they do in concepts. They find in every image of bride and groom the vivid reality of Christ's espousal to His Church, for which human nuptials are merely the shadowy metaphor. The Fathers find the Church in Eve, in the valiant woman of Proverbs 31, in Ruth; the Church is the one who follows the Lamb wherever He goes, saying, as we have heard it before, where you dwell, I will dwell; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Augustine finds an image of the Church in every Roman bride who seals her matrimoniales with her vow upon her husband's threshold.

The far-out exegetes in my life remind us that in Scripture, the precise exchange above- where you go, I will go, the Old Testament equivalent of the Quando Tu- occurs between two women, not between a nuptial pair. But the reality is that in the Christian faith, this declaration is not so much spoken as it is finally enacted. It is the Bridegroom Himself who utters the final words of covenantal consummation. The final act of (divine) consent is completed in His own body: it is finished.

Just as Roman customary norms understood that the bride was formed into a true, mature personal agent by conformity to her husband, Augustine locates the formation of the Church as Christ’s nuptial body upon His Cross- In Christ's case, a bride was born for Him as He hung on the Cross, and the Church was made from his side. With a lance his side was struck as he hung there, and out flowed the sacraments of the Church. (Ennaratione 56.11).

The consenting, responsive ego has, of course, already been spoken. The Holy Spirit has already hovered over the first fruit of the Father’s promises to the Son, when a timid teenage girl in Nazareth paused at the threshold of her spouse’s household, and, to conclude the long series of free acts of assent made by the symbolic gestures of her ancestors, gave consent to the terms once established between the Father and the Son: may it be to me according to your word.

(Mary, of course, did not know about Roman jurisprudence. She does not speak with the merely self-referential ego of the contracted bride; she speaks with the determination of an adjudicator: Fiat. It is, after all, God who has proposed to her.)

To all who will join her first act of consent, so that with her definitive “let it be to me according to your word, wherever you go, I will go,” we simply join in: “Amen.” The door to the Father’s household has already been opened, the nuptial Covenant has been ratified, the Word has been made flesh in the body of a bride, the marriage has been consummated on the Cross, its procreative purpose is already unfolding in the weary world as we are gathered, more and more, into Christ’s embrace. Consumatum est. You know how the rest goes. It’s just a matter of time.

…But the bride no longer pauses on her husband’s threshold. It is now He who stands at the door and knocks: Quando tu, ego.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Living in Advent Hope: Saint Josephine Bakhita, Awaited

Saint Josephine Bakhita is a modern Sudanese saint, who was canonized by John Paul II, and then chosen by Pope Benedict to highlight the practice of hope in his latest encyclical, Spe Salvi. Her example and profile in the encyclical were discussed at Yale on her feast day, February 8; she is described by the Holy Father, below.

"To come to know God—the true God—means to receive hope. We who have always lived with the Christian concept of God, and have grown accustomed to it, have almost ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God.

The example of a saint of our time can to some degree help us understand what it means to have a real encounter with this God for the first time. I am thinking of the African Josephine Bakhita, canonized by Pope John Paul II. She was born around 1869—she herself did not know the precise date—in Darfur in Sudan. At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life. Finally, in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul Callisto Legnani, who returned to Italy as the Mahdists advanced. Here, after the terrifying “masters” who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of “master”—in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name “paron” for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ.

Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a “paron” above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme “Paron”, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her “at the Father's right hand”. Now she had “hope” —no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” Through the knowledge of this hope she was “redeemed”, no longer a slave, but a free child of God. She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world—without hope because without God. Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her “Paron”.

On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On 8 December 1896, in Verona, she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards, besides her work in the sacristy and in the porter's lodge at the convent, she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people. The hope born in her which had redeemed her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody."

Monday, December 01, 2008

"Merry Christmas" as All Hail King Jesus

On the first week day of Advent, a retrospect...

Over the past few years, I have just about had it with Jaded Evangelical Disilusion with Christmas on the one hand, and Flippant Disregard on the other. I heard a bright young person wish his friend a benign "Happy Holidays," in Church, on Sunday; very, very Annoying.

When I lived in a certain little spot in New England, the town square outside one of my family's apartments had a gorgeous and enormous lit Christmas tree in its center; at dusk each night, it illumined its snowy environs along with the glittering snowflake which hung on the charming intersection of Chapel and College. There as now, Starbucks has everything in red (with a ubiquitous "pass the cheer" injunction), and Hark the Herald Angels playing; storefronts are bedecked in green. Christians, of all people, should be hilarious with delight at the way our world resounds with the Gospel at this time of the year.... and all without much effort on our part.

These Christmas symbols mean Something, and they emerge on a ready world each December, to be unveiled along with the implicit Gospel which they signify- twinkling lights, for the Light which shines in darkness; evergreens, because God's creation is renewed with the Incarnation, being returned to the One for whom it was made, death is undone, life can now flourish; red, for the precious life-blood which accomplished it all. We exchange gifts to commemorate the unqualified grace of the cross, the proper Christmas Tree. There is even a poignant story behind Candy Canes.

And what are many Christians doing? They sulk about "commercialism," "pagan solstice origins," "seasonal stress," "holiday blues," and "Market Economy Exploitation of the Season." This year, we may sulk about enduring a holiday at the outset of a recession. Oh COME ON. In a world where one's children may be slowly put to death for the mere confession of Christ, we get to rollick in His fame, and our very storefronts do it with us. This is a winter wonderland for Jesus' followers across the globe. It's amazing.

The Psalmist simply loses it when he describes his vision of his Lord: "my heart is overflowing with a good matter; I speak of the things which I have made for the King. Thou art fairer than all the children of men; grace is poured from thy lips; therefore God has blessed thee forever; in thy majesty ride prosperously... and thy right hand shall accomplish awe-inspiring things. .. I will make thy name to be remembered in all generations; therefore shall the people praise thee forever and ever." (Psalm 45) This is the spirit of Christmas.

Jesus is a rock star in the world at this time of year. Far be it from good Christians to dilute this kind of evangelism. The whole world around us wants to celebrate the Savior to this extent, as we can tell by the lights and tinsle and trees and gift giving madness. Rich and poor alike, throughout the world at large, wait to hear the good news preached to the poor at Christmas. The weary world wants to rejoice, even though maybe all it can do is decorate. But we knew that all along. Let's make their desire a reality at this time of the year.