Sunday, January 30, 2011

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Romans 13:8-10 / Matthew 8:23-27

And His disciples came to Him, and awakened Him, saying. Lord, save us, we perish.

According to the Angelic Doctor, one of the principal arguments against the existence of God is the existence of evil, not merely the moral evil of wicked men and demons, but also the physical evils that threaten our well-being: earthquakes, droughts, violent storms. Whatever may be the truth of his claim (and I see no reason to doubt his claim, even given the social and cultural distance between his context and ours), it may also be claimed that the existence of evil, indeed the experience and suffering of evil, produces for many of the faithful their first engagement with theology. Apart from any direct challenges to their own safety and happiness, most of the faithful can happily receive the revealed faith and its authentic and authoritative explication by the Church without anxiety or resistance. However, the first time the world does not line up with our flourishing — whether the reasons be trivial, like having a downpour on the day of a planned outdoor wedding reception, or more compelling, like the failure of a farmer's crops, the death of a child, or the intractable character of a lethal virus — the believer cannot reasonably avoid asking why there should be a distance between the world as we experience it and what we understand to be God's providential care of the created order, especially for the good of his faithful.

Unhappily, many of our answers do justice neither to the truth about God nor to the reality of our suffering. One solution is to assert that the world operates according to its own designs and its own inner laws. God may choose to intervene, but he either has principled reasons not to do so (such as giving us a stable universe in which our moral choices have clearer significance or the promise of some kind of greater good we could achieve in no other way than by suffering) or he is, either instrinsically or by a kind of self-limiting, unable to command the world to respond to his will. Such a view, whatever its attractions, only succeeds at the cost of denying God's providence and his limitless power over the works of his hands, and such a denial stands in the face of the clear and repeated claims of the Scriptures.

Another solution is to claim that, in one way or another, our sufferings are an illusion. Such a view may claim, in the manner of Christian Science, that our earthly sufferings are not real in any sense, or it might be a more mitigated claim, such as that, compared to the reality of God, we ought not to consider the evils of the world to be anything by passing distractions, nothing when seen lined up against the glory of God. However, this view requires us to deny the assertions of God in the Scriptures that he came in the flesh precisely to free us from the evils that oppress us: sin and disease, the devil, and death. The evils we face may of course pale in comparison to the divine majesty, but they are real and serious, and to dismiss them is to dismiss the seriousness with which God takes them, suffering the Cross to free us from them.

The solution which our Lord provides his frightened disciples on the boat, his disciples who feared death in the angry waves of the sea, is to sleep peacefully: and behold a great tempest arose in the sea, so that the boat was covered with waves, but He was asleep. In response to his disciples' panic and terror, Jesus can only marvel at their fear, and by his command, the very elements of the world come to share in that same divine rest that the disciples had sought to disturb: Then rising up He commanded the winds and the sea, and there came a great calm.

Yet, how can sleep, how can calm, be a response to the evils of the world? It cannot be because the evils, the winds and the waves, are unreal; after all, Jesus commands them to be calm. Yet, for that same reason, it cannot be that Jesus does not have authority over the world, and that for the same reason, namely that they come to be calm by his mere word. No, what the disciples lacked, and what our failed responses to the evils of the world lack, is faith. What Jesus in his sleep presents to our eyes is not someone who does not accept the reality of evil nor someone who is unable to do anything about it. What his calm in the heart of the storm shows us is that our security amid the world's tempests is only found in our trust in God's providence.

On their own, the evils of the world are terrifying, and we do ourselves no favors either denying their full menace or in finding a false solace in thinking that even God cannot help us all of the time. Rather, it is only in knowing that God is in fact the Lord of the winds and the sea, and everything else besides, that we see the sufferings of the world in their right perspective. It is nowhere but in the calm of Jesus himself that we will find deliverance from whatever ails us, and we can be confident that he will not delay in bringing to us whatever will be for our good.

Domine, salva nos, perimus: impera, et fac, Deus, tranquilitatem.
Lord, save us, we perish; command, O God, and make a calm.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Feast of St Thomas Aquinas, O.P., Doctor of the Church

Ephesians 3:8-12 / John 17:11-19

Now, therefore, through the church, God's manifold wisdom is made known to the principalities and powers of heaven, in accord with his age-old purpose, carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord.

How can angels learn about the things of God from human beings? True enough, according to the Church's lore on angels, they can in fact learn from one another, the higher and more exalted ones enlightening by the superior light of their intellect those who are below. However, the blessed angels enjoy the beatific vision, so surely they know all they desire to know, all that God will them to know about himself. What is more, if God were to bring them to a greater and deeper knowledge, how could this come about through human beings, who know indirectly and stepwise what the angels themselves know directly and intuitively? After all, even human beings taught by the Incarnate Word himself are not, in their humanity, closer to God in his divinity than are the angels.

St Thomas' solution to this puzzle is to attend to Paul's language in Ephesians. Paul, he notes, does not say that the angles, the principalities and powers of heaven, are taught by the Church, but that they learn through the Church. Just as we learn of the plan hidden in the mind of the architect by the emergence of the building he is having built, so too the angels learn the hidden counsels of God through the unfolding of his plan of redemption in the living out and building up of the Church.

Thomas' solution is, as one would expect, elegant and simple. It does, however, open up what has become something of a hotly disputed point about the nature of truth. Specifically, the question is this: What is the kind of truth in which Christ consecrated his disciples, and which the angels come to know through the Church? Even more precisely, is the truth in which the Church is consecrated the truth of things known (a cognitive reality) or the truth of a community authentically lived (a personal/existential reality)? Is it, in other words, the truth of gnosis or the truth of praxis?

Thomas' own life ironically gives witness to either answer, easily seen in two well-known events in his life. The first possibility, the cognitive focus of truth as known, can be seen in the story of Thomas' dinner with St Louis IX, King of France. Thomas, well-known to the holy king as both a saintly and a wise man, spent much of his meal in silence. Then, as though oblivious to his fellow guests or even of his host, exemplifying his abstractio mentis, his abstraction of mind from his immediate context, abruptly pounded on the table with his fist and cried out, "That is a decisive argument against the Manichees!" (To his credit, the most Christian king of France did not chide him, but rather called for pen and parchment so that Thomas could have his argument recorded and it would not be lost.) Truth here was truth as seen and contemplated, apart from consideration of the human context in which it came to mind.

Another story of Thomas, however, points in the opposite direction. It is said that, while he was a student in Cologne under the watch of St Albert the Great, Thomas kept his tongue, and because of this and his large size, was called by his fellow students the Dumb Ox. Thinking him a bit dim, his brothers called him to look out the window to see a flying cow. When the Angelic Doctor went to take a look, his brothers laughed at him, marvelling that he would be so credulous as to think a cow could fly. In response, Thomas noted that he would more readily believe that a cow could fly than that a Dominican would knowingly and willingly deceive his brother. Truth here is truth as personal and experienced, lived precisely by attending to the web of human relationships in which we find ourselves.

Thomas' own insight about truth, and indeed the very promise made by Jesus himself to the apostles in John's Gospel — Consecrate them by means of truth. Your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world; I consecrate myself for their sakes now, that they may be consecrated in truth. — is that this tension between truth as known and contemplated and truth a interpersonally lived and experienced disappears in the encounter with the Incarnate Word. Since Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, is Truth, this means that any speculative or contemplative encounter with truth is always already personal, and encounter with the Person of the Word. Likewise, any personal engagement with the whole Christ, in Head or in members, only makes sense, is only authentic, if it is open to a deeper vision of what is simply true of the other, even apart from our relating.

This is what it means to be consecrated in the truth. This is what it means to be sent even as Christ was sent. To be in the truth is to be so joined to Christ that in us the Truth that is his very Person will illumine even the powers of heaven. Thomas himself, while working on the Tertia pars of his great Summa theologiae, was seen to have been hovering in the air before the crucifix, weeping and praying. The image of Christ said to Thomas, "Well have you written about me, O Thomas. What reward do you seek?" May we, like him, be consecrated in the truth and answer with our patron and our brother, "Nothing but you, O Lord."

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Conversion of St Paul

Acts 9:1-22 / Matthew 19:27-29

Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?

Far be it from is to suggest that Our Lord Jesus Christ has made a mistake. All the same, there is something striking, and seemingly wrong about Jesus' question to Saul, breathing threats and violence on his way to persecute the Church in Damascus. Surely it is these Christians and not Christ whom Saul is persecuting. Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Mine? could be an acceptable question. We might even stretch the point and say that, in striking those whom Christ loves, one does strike at Christ himself. Lovers and their beloved share in both joy and grief in just this way, so surely the perfect love of Christ for his Church qualifies his claim to having been persecuted by Saul in the persecution of his disciples, the faithful of his Church. All the same, the accusation that Saul is wrong in persecuting the faithful is strikingly absent. They have been and are being injured by Saul in a way that Christ is not. He has ascended above the heavens where death no longer has dominion over him, where pain and sorrow are no more.

There is more to this question than simply a curious puzzle of our Lord's turn of phrase. Indeed, it touches upon a question close to the very heart of what it means to flourish as a human person: Do we relate to one another fundamentally in light of the irreducible individuality of each person, or do we make appeal to what it universal and shared among all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve? On the one hand, it seems as though we ought to judge our relationships with one another in light of the irreducible truth of persons. I am not you, nor either of us he or she. Each of us is his own person, and to relate to me is irreplaceable with any other relationship or encounter. There is something in each person which is his and his alone to offer the world, which he and he alone can draw out of me, as there is something of him which only I, or you, or we together, can draw forth. To bypass that particularity in favor of universal principles seems to miss the whole point of moral action in the first place. There is no humanity for me to love apart from this man, that woman, this child. To fail to see discrete and distinct persons, and instead to see only instances of a larger abstraction, is surely the beginning of the path which will trample on the good of real persons for the false nobility of serving the abstracted whole of the human race.

However, as noble as such a sentiment is, we know how easily it is to respond well, even at our best, as regards those whom we know well, whom we know not simply to be persons, but whom we know personally. On the other hand, surely one of the crucial measures of our flourishing as moral, loving persons is the degree to which we can respond happily, promptly, reliably and well to our fellow men simply by virtue of our shared humanity. Prior to engaging another man in the irreducible singularity of his personhood, and even in the midst of that relationship, do I not have to take into account precisely what it is he and I share in being human? Does not what ennobles my kindness and generosity to the men and women I meet find its roots not in the small circle of persons I happen to know well, but in my capacity to enlarge that circle to greet in openness and truth even those I have encountered but a moment before?

For human persons, there is no solution to this dilemma, as both concerns are true. However, in the depth of my encounter with any creature, however noble, even created persons, I will necessarily fail to see the whole truth, even of the person I want to know and love, unless I draw back and see him in light of other things. However, by drawing back and seeing persons in light of other considerations, I inevitably need to draw myself away from what is most individual, most personal of this, or that, or the other.

Yet, while this is true of human persons, of created persons, it is not true of the man Jesus Christ, who is God and Lord of all. Jesus is man, and in our relating with him, we fulfill rightly and truly what it means to be human, to be in relation with our fellow men. Jesus is God, a divine Person, the eternal Son of God. In relating with Jesus, we are thus attending at one and the same time to one who is irreducible Personal, indeed even more so than human, created persons, and we encounter that universal foundation, the Logos by whom and through whom all things were made. We do not constrain ourselves in placing all our heart, mind, and soul in Christ, for his radical particularity is the very ground of being in whom all things live, move, and have their being. In the theandric humanity, the divinized manhood of Jesus of Nazareth, we are not confined to a few decades in Galilee centuries past, but we touch the very manhood of God, the humanity of the Word, which takes us in as members, more fully united to him than our hands to our own bodies or our bodies to our own souls.

This is why Jesus makes no mistake in his accusation of Saul, and this is why in his conversion Ananias and the Jews of Damascus encountered in Paul in one and the same moment the same man struck blind on the road and the very Apostle of Christ the Lord. To be alive in Christ, to be a Christian, is to have Christ join us to his very body, his very divine life. He has drawn us up to himself and made us his, and in this joining, we do not lose anything of who we are in some murky distraction. To be one in Christ, to have Christ claim me as his own, in rather to be set up to be more fully myself than anything the world could ever give.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Memorial of St Francis de Sales/Monday of 3rd Week in Ordinary Time (I)

Hebrews 9:15, 24-28 / Mark 3:22-30

We normally associate St Francis de Sales with gentleness, and of course we are right to do so; his was a honeyed soul who drew many back to the faith, and even inspired to deeper devotion those who remained apart, than the other more vinegary tongues to come before and after him. Even so, he was on occasion more than willing to speak and write a difficult word to those whom he intended to challenge.

In his preaching throughout the Chablais, St Francis discovered many men and women who had turned away from the Church and her sacraments, embracing the Reformed creed. They had been scandalized by the Catholic clergy, by their failure, indeed incapacity, to respond theologically to the challenge of the Reformers, and even more so by their failure, and they feared incapacity, to live a moral life that even remotely echoed the Gospel. In the face of a such a failure on the part of the Catholic clergy, St Francis did not pull any punches. Such clerics, he wrote, were nothing less than spiritual murderers for their having caused scandal among the faithful and leading them away from the Church by their dissolute lives.

However, St Francis de Sales had even harder words against those who "forged scandals for themselves." These were those who chose be be scandalized. If the scandalous clergy were spiritual murderers, then those who chose to be scandalized and in their anger and disappointment to leave the Church, were even worse, for they had committed spiritual suicide. To allow scandal to destroy one's faith was, he wrote, to place a millstone around one's own neck and throw oneself off the deck of the barque of Peter, whose helmsman is Christ, into the sea of misery. Allowing oneself to be scandalized, and in the scandal to quit the life of the Church, is the worst sort of sin against charity since it means knowingly to cut oneself off from the only means to receive the forgiveness which Christ has freely poured out.

This spiritual suicide is the very sin against the Holy Spirit about which Christ warns the scribes. The scribes, after all, do not deny that those men and women who had been oppressed by demons, and in that oppression kept from that fulness of life which God willed for them, had been delivered from the Evil One and his servants by the ministry of Jesus. However, even knowing this great good the very coming of Jesus had already brought to the people of Israel, the scribes chose rather the divide themselves from this freely offered deliverance by clinging to their self-wrought chains of scandal, their own personal millstones.

That someone or something in the Church — a prelate, a brother or sister in religion, a parishioner or family member, an encyclical, a practice or its omission — will cause each of us scandal one day is certain. The Church, after all, is full of sinners, and in this we, too, are to be counted. In the face of that millstone which we have hewn by our own temptation to nurse our injuries and the injustices inflicted upon us by the Church and her ministers, will we be ready to embrace instead the Rock who forgives all sins and blasphemies, the one who will appear to us and to the whole world to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Thursday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time (Year I)

Hebrews 7:25 - 8:6 / Mark 3:7-12

Most of us like to take vacations. We like to be able to withdraw from the daily grind of our lives, from the persons and obligations that crowd around us. In place of such responsibilities, in place of the familiar, we enjoy a change of scenery, a different pace of life. Whether we prefer our vacations to be quiet or filled to the brim with activity, the whole point of it all is to step away from what we ordinarily do.

Even so, we are not accustomed to associate vacation or withdrawal with being useful. Indeed, when our sense that something needs to be done begins to assert itself, when we find ourselves wanting to be helpful, to be of use to others, we tend to tell ourselves that the vacation must come to an end. However sadly, we insist that we have to return to the ordinary scheme of things if we are to meet the needs of a world in want.

This is why the Scriptures we read today are so striking. In the Gospel, it is not by plunging himself into the crowd, but quite the opposite, by withdrawing to the sea that Jesus is able to exercise and effect the overabundant fruits of his saving presence — He had cured many and, as a result, those who had diseases were pressing upon him to touch him. And whenever unclean spirits saw him they would fall down before him  and shout, “You are the Son of God.” The same claim is affirmed directly in the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is precisely to the extent that Jesus is unlike other high priests that what he offers us as gifts are so effective. Indeed, it is insofar as he is separated from the rest of us, higher than the heavens, that he can fulfill that high priestly ministry for which he was sent and of which we are so deeply in need. In short, Jesus is not less, but abundantly more helpful, as so much more excellent a ministry, to the extent that he, even in his earthly sojourn, was separated out from those to whom he ministered and with whom he lived, preached, and healed.

We, too, who would follow Jesus Christ, must likewise live a life of withdrawal. It is not that we should take a vacation to escape responsibility or indulge in a trivial waste of time. Rather, we must withdraw to take part in the service of that truer Temple, of which our earthly affairs, concerns and responsibilities are only the palest of copies. It is only as separated from the waywardness of the world that we will ever have the perspective to speak the word that the world needs to hear. It is not from the midst of the crowd that we best respond to the world's suffering, but from the calm of the divine see that we can best make God known.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Second Sunday after Epiphany

Romans 12:6-16 / John 2:1-11

And Jesus saith to her: Woman, what is that to Me and to thee? My hour is not yet come.

It is always hard to hear a son refuse, even rebuke, however mildly, his own mother. Even when we know neither the son nor the mother, when both remain to us perfect strangers, our own natural piety towards our own mothers, however feeble and attenuated, rises up in protest against what seems to us a natural inversion of the order of things. When it occurs among the faithful, who have received from Sinai God's holy commandment Honor thy father and thy mother, our discomfort and indignation is even more inflamed. Should the rebuff proceed from someone we know, someone we love, we are nearly at a loss at what to do and say.

So, when Jesus, our life and our love, our Savior, Redeemer, Lover and Friend, refuses his mother's request for an intervention on behalf of the newly wedded couple of Cana and their guests, we simply are set adrift. That Jesus does in fact produce, one must suppose at his own initiative, the miraculous conversion of water to choice wine, and that the Virgin Mother appears none the worse for her having been refused by her Son, indeed that she unhesitatingly makes at once an act of faith and an evangelical appeal on his behalf — Whatsoever He shall say to you, do ye. — likely does not remove from our ears and our hearts those words: Woman, what is that to Me and to thee?

St Augustine provides us with a helpful guide to understand this exchange between the Word Incarnate and his Virgin Mother. For Augustine, what Jesus wants us to recall, as also he wants his mother to recall, is that what he has taken from her, what he shares with us, is not that by which he performs miracles, for indeed his miracles all come from his divinity, which he receives from his Father. Rather, what comes from his mother, what he shares with us, is his capacity to suffer, his infirmity, his weakness. So, in refusing to perform a miracle at his mother's prompting, he was reminding her, and through her exhortation she in turn is reminding us, that whatever he does miraculously, it is not as the Son of the Virgin, but as the Son of the Most High, the Son of the Father.

At the same time, in his proffered explanation — My hour is not yet come. — Jesus points the Virgin away from Cana towards Jerusalem, towards Calvary. Augustine thus interprets the response of our Lord: When the hour of my Passion shall have come, then will I acknowledge you as my mother. In other words, the Motherhood of Mary is always already, from its very beginnings, bound up in the mystery of the Passion, and for her to know what it is to be mother is at its heart for her to gaze upon her Son, nailed to the Cross. It is at that mysterious moment, prefigured already in the miracle at Cana, when Jesus will, for the first time since the wedding feast, direct the Church in the person of the beloved disciple to recognize Mary as Mother, while even then directing her to see, not merely in his own person, but in the beloved disciple, and through him every one of the Christian faithful, as her Son.

This means, then, that our taking offense on behalf of the Virgin was misplaced. While we meant to defend her as our own mother, we can only recognize her as such to the extent that we have been conformed to the Lord, and Him crucified. As she is Mother of the Father's Son to the extent that she is the mother of his Passion, so she is our mother only to the extent that we share in that Passion. It is our drinking of the Cup of the Lord's suffering, which is also the New Wine of the wedding feast of the Lamb, prefigured already in the miraculous vintage of the wedding feast in Cana, that we can find in Mary our own Mother, and in so finding her, be made all the more prompt and glad to respond to her proclamation of the Gospel: Whatsoever He shall say to you, do ye.

Monstra te esse matrem
sumat per te precem
qui pro nobis natus
tulit esse tuus.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Isaiah 60:1-6 / John 1:29-34

"When did you receive Christ as your personal Savior?" "When were you born again?" These are not questions with which most Catholics are comfortable. The very phrasing of them comes from a world which we do not inhabit, and in which we feel out of place, breathing an alien and unfamiliar atmosphere. That Christ is our Savior, indeed our personal Savior, we gladly affirm. That we have been born again of water and the Spirit, this too we do not hesitate to own. Even so, we tend to put a distance between what we affirm about Christ and any direct, unambiguous, personal work of the Spirit in our hearts, testifying to the life-giving presence of our Lord Jesus Christ. Such language we leave to the Evangelicals and Pentecostalists.

This is unfortunate, and misses something crucial about our new life in baptism. Against our reticence stands the witness of John the Baptist. John, while affirming that Jesus was begotten before all ages, that He was before me, nonetheless recognizes that this truth about Jesus was not enough to bring him to a fulness of faith. I knew Him not, he says. Again, when presented with the manifest, external work of God giving witness to the identity and mission of the Word made flesh — I saw the Spirit coming down as a dove from heaven, and He remained upon Him — John repeats his assertion of ignorance: I knew Him not. It is only when he received the inner voice of the Father in his heart that what was true of Jesus Christ from before all ages and was made manifest in his baptism at the Jordan was made something real and salutary in John's heart and mind. He Who sent me to baptize with water said to me: He upon Whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, He it is that baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. Now the Baptist's faith is real and effective, and now he can confess before the world not merely its preparation, but the very Gospel itself: And I saw: and I gave testimony that this is the Son of God.

To be sure, we do not require direct visual access to the earthly ministry of Jesus to come to saving faith. After all, John the Baptist had such access to Christ at his baptism, but this alone was not enough. Moreover, the Baptist reminds us that his own ministry serves as a kind of evangelism: that He may be made manifest in Israel, therefore I am come baptizing with water. We can come to faith as truly and surely through the testimony of the apostles as recorded in the New Testament, in the witness of the Church through the ages, in her present teaching office, and indeed in the holy lives of those who are born again in water and the Holy Spirit. However, what we cannot do without is what the Baptist could not do without — the voice of the Father who sent us testifying that this Jesus is the Lamb of God ... Who taketh away the sin of the world.

This is why we must be open and attentive to the working of faith in our hearts. All of our faithful observance of the sacraments and devotions, of reading the Scriptures and of attending to the Church's teachers and preachers — all of these things and more besides are helpful to us to the extent that they animate more fully and powerfully our inner quiet and attentiveness to hear the voice of the Father in our hearts. O God, Whose only-begotten Son hath appeared in the substance of our flesh: grant, we beseech Thee, that by Him, in Whom outwardly we recognize our likeness, we may deserve to be inwardly created anew.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Holy Family

Colossians 3:12-17 / Luke 2: 42-52

And all that heard Him were astonished at His wisdom and His answers. And seeing Him they wondered.

We might be forgiven if it is we who marvel at the astonishment if the doctors in the Temple, and even of the Blessed Mother and Joseph her spouse. We are, after all, accustomed to hear, or at least to read, the wisdom and answers of the Word made flesh. We expect him to disclose the deep mysteries of the prophets, to make manifest the light of the world that scatters the darkness. He is the Son of God, and we are by now prepared to anticipate his response to his parents: Did you not know that I must be about My Father's business?

Yet, where both we and they fail to be stupefied is in what follows: And He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them. The one by whom and through whom all things were made, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who was in the beginning with God and was God was subject to the very creatures whom he made, and who were themselves, like all creatures, subject to him. It is easy to understand the failure of Mary and Joseph to find this amazing. After all, despite the rather wondrous events surrounding the birth of Jesus and the drama of the flight into Egypt, nothing suggests that the twelve years preceding the finding in the Temple were anything other than ordinary. The subjection of a child to his parents was expected, even if Jesus' submission was more than exemplary.

We, however, are at risk of glossing over the deep mystery here. So accustomed are we to recognize in Jesus the Word made flesh, to hear of his works of power and might, his healing of illness and casting out of demons, his words of wisdom and salutary teachings, that we ignore the humility of a God who made himself obedient to his own creatures whom he had come to redeem, and did so from his infancy to mature adulthood. What we have here is more than a model of good Christian filial piety, although it certainly is that. We are aiming too low if the mystery of the Holy Family is only a divine blueprint for peaceful and fruitful family life.

Rather, what we see in the subjection of Jesus to his earthly parents is part of God's saving work by which he is drawing the whole of the wayward world back into its rightful natural obedience, and even more drawing that same world into his eternal Filial obedience to the Father. Like all of Christ's acts in the flesh, the subjection of the Son to Mary and Joseph opens the way and, if we let it, produces in us not merely the disposition to be rightly ordered to persons of value in the world, but the supernatural disposition to be made sons of the Father of all. This is the joyous mystery we celebrate on the Feast of the Holy Family, that Jesus completed in himself what he completes in each of his elect through the mystery of baptism, the bringing to life of his brothers, of new sons sharing in the eternal life of the Godhead itself.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Epiphany of Our Lord

Isaiah 60:1-6 / Matthew 2:1-12

La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col cappello alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!
Across Italy, children awoke this morning to find gifts of toys and candy, and fearful to discover only coal, left by la Befana. In Italian lore, this broom-riding old woman covered in soot and topped with a hat alla romana, brings gifts to the children of Italy, even as does Santa Claus or the Christ Child, or even the Magi themselves, for others. According to the legend, Befana was the best housekeeper in her village, and so she was approached by the Magi on their way to visit in the infant Christ. While she was more than happy to put them up for the night and allow them to enjoy her hospitality, when they asked her to accompany them to see the Christ, she demurred, insisting that she had to attend to her housework. After the Magi had left, she reconsidered, and set off to find them and the promised Messiah, but to no avail. So, the still travels the world, riding atop the broom with which she kept house, hoping every year that the child who receives her gifts on Epiphany Eve will be the Christ.

Whatever we make of the tradition of la Befana, we do well to heed both the warning and the hope bound up in this story. Not, of course, the warning and hope of carboni or caramelle, of coal or candy. Rather, Befana is for us a sign of the possibilities, as well as the limits, of an earthly hope for the Savior.

In the Gospel, we see two other models: Herod and the Magi. In Herod we find one who seeks God only to destroy him, clinging more firmly to his earthly power and finding in God not the answer to his longing, but rather a threat to all he has come to hold dear. In the Magi, we see those who are willing to cast aside everything that have known of God and the world and to honor, in even his most humble and vulnerable of manifestations, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Herod's hardness deprives him of what he most desires; the Magi's costly journey and even costlier gifts find a reward beyond their wildest imaginings.

Most of us, however, find ourselves neither in the hardened fear of Herod nor in the enlightened hope of the Magi. We are neither believers who have turned ourselves definitively against the very things which the God whom we profess to believe had promised, nor are we unbelievers ready on the basis of even a glimmer of the glorious majesty of God Most High to cast aside our ignorance and bow in adoration of the Word made flesh. We are, all too often, like la Befana. We are believers, good and virtuous, ready to provide a helping hand and kindness even to strangers. However, we are also busy with our own affairs, at risk of discovering, all too late, that even the best of earthly kindness has no home outside this world. Like la Befana's yearly gift-giving, mere earthly kindness and generosity is at one and the same time a sign of hope to those who receive it, yet a sign of frustration for those who hope in it alone.

We have, in the end, no other journey save the journey of the Magi. There is no hope in Herod's wicked craving for earthly power and glory. Neither is there hope in la Befana's providing the best the world can give, but nonetheless cleaving more closely to this world than the next. It is only in the Magi's radical offering of the best this world has to offer from the best knowledge the world has to guide, and even then having no shame to journey far and at the cost of all they knew and loved, to bend their knee to an infant in a manger alongside ox and ass, shepherd and sheep — only there, on our knees in the straw with nothing left to give, do we find in the infant Jesus the God whom the world cannot contain.

Why, impious Herod, shouldst thou fear
Because the Christ is come so near?
He Who doth heavenly kingdoms grant
Thine earthly realm can never want. 

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Twelfth Day of Christmas

Titus 2:11-15 / Luke 2:21

Christmastide has reached its end. In some places in the world, the decorations will hold on for one last day, to be set aside definitively at the end of the Epiphany. In other places, they have been packed away since the turning of the New Year, if not even some time before that. Many people, perhaps even most, have returned or are even now returning to work, to school, to the daily course of life which had been suspended over the past dozen days. While no doubt somethings remains of our gingerbread cookies, our Christmas cakes, or our panettoni and pandoro, even that special diet that has marked the festive celebration of our Lord's birth has likely given way to a more ordinary, no doubt healthier, but certainly less celebratory fare.

Our gifts as well, now safely put away as we prepare to take down the tree, if we have not done so already, have lost something of the luster of that first moment of unwrapping. They may well remain unused, but odds are even for those gifts which are still to be enjoyed, the experience of receiving the gift is at risk of being lost to forgetfulness, even of one most highly appreciated and prized.

This is why the Church prays one more time, as it has prayed now for days: O God, who by the fruitful virginity of blessed Mary hast bestowed upon mankind the rewards of everlasting sanctification: grant, we beseech Thee, that we may experience her intercession for us, through whom we have been made worthy to receive the Author of Life, Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Our Lord: Who with Thee liveth and reigneth in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. We know, even if the words now seem cliché for their repetition, that in the joyful mysteries of Mary's Fiat and her giving the world the Son, a giving which was itself a grace given to her by that same Son she bore, we have received the greatest of all gifts, the rewards of everlasting sanctification, a share in God's eternal life. This thought has been, at least as long as we have, like the Blessed Virgin, kept these words and pondered them in our hearts, quite clear in our minds, and we have been, by God's grace, both gladdened and grateful. Yet, thinking with the mind of the Church, we know all too well that, outside this holy season, we can all too easily become enmeshed in the cares of the world, even in ungodliness and worldly desires.

So, we call upon the aid of her who so generously came to our aid at the beginning of this last age of the world. We call upon the intercession of the Mother of God not only that she may come to our aid, but even more that we experience, indeed that we feel, her intercession (ut ipsam pro nobis intercedere sentiamus). While we often rightly warn against making our faith a matter of feeling, we also know that rightly-ordered feeling is the proper soil in which our knowledge and love can grow and flourish. Apart from those felt experiences, and their being sustained, what we know to be good and true can become clouded, and our appetite to pursue it dull and sluggish.

So, before we leave Christmastide, we ask the Virgin for one last gift to top off the many happy ones already received. We ask her to keep alive in the days, the weeks, the years to come, the warm grace of her maternal gift in Bethlehem, which is of course nothing other than the Paternal gift to us of his Son, our Brother, the Lord Jesus Christ, by the bond of Love, the Holy Spirit. May we, who can so quickly forget the gladness of these days, continue to experience from day to day, by the intercession of the Virgin Mary, the glad tidings of Bethlehem: A Child is born to us, and a Son is given to us!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Tenth Day of Christmas

Titus 2:11-15 / Luke 2:21

The grace of God our Savior hath appeared to all men, instructing us, that, denying ungodliness and worldly desires, we should live soberly and justly and godly in this world, looking for the blessed hope and coming of the glory of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ.

Why do we strive to do what is good? What is the point of the moral life which we engage in following the Gospel? On the view of many critics of the Gospel, the Christian faithful are altogether confused about the relationship between goodness and belief in Jesus Christ. These atheists and secularists argue that there are convincing grounds for morality altogether apart from desire for heaven or dread of hell. In their eyes, the Christian faithful are like children striving to be good for fear that this year, because of too much wickedness, they might receive a lump of coal in place of presents. That is, they imagine that Christians believe that our motive to be good is that God had demanded certain behaviors and threatened us with dire punishment if we do not live in accord with them.

Of course, this is not the Christian view, and one would be surprised to find a serious and committed Christian who spoke in such a way. Even so, why do we think that our Christian life on earth is supposed to look the way that it does? If it is not a way of earning God's love, and likewise if it not the following of certain arbitrarily appointed standards to live up to the whims of a capricious deity, then what accounts for the specific kind of virtue we call Christian charity? In short, why do we deny ungodliness and earthly desires and live soberly and justly and godly in this world as we await Christ's return?

The answer is at least in part because, even as Christ has not returned in glory, he is nonetheless with us. It is because of the gift of Christ dwelling in our hearts by the power of the Spirit, the birth of the Word not in the cave of Bethlehem but in the cave of our soul, that we do what we do and live as we live. We may be waiting for his glorious appearing, but we do not have to wait for his real and effective presence, and to live a life unchanged in the presence of another one claims to love is not to love him at all. It is because the one who loved us so much as to take on the frailty of our human nature for our sake is even now dwelling in our midst that we, his beloved, must, if love means anything at all, find our every action and our every motive changed by his presence.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Holy Name of Jesus

Acts 4:8-12 / Luke 2:21

For there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved.

Would a God who is good and just, who endowed all sons and daughters of Adam and Eve with the power of reason and the moral obligation to use it, require of us for our everlasting happiness anything that is not universally available to all human persons in all places and in all times by reasoned observation? This was the question raised by many skeptics of revealed religion in the eighteenth century, and famously by Matthew Tindal in his work Christianity as Old as the Creation; or, the Gospel a Republication of the Religion of Nature. On Tindal's view, true Christianity was whatever within the Gospel could also be discovered by the impartial application of reason to human life. For this reason, he rejected as essential to the Christian faith anything that depended on specific revelation, such as the belief in the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the sacraments, and so on. Tindal writes, God designed all Mankind should at all times know, what he wills them to know, believe, profess, and practice; and has given them no other Means for this, but the Use of Reason.

Tindal's views, even if expressed somewhat differently today, still have a kind of purchase, even among the baptized. Many worry that salvation only in Jesus, the affirmation of St Peter that there is no other name under even given to men, whereby we must be saved, presents a kind of exclusivism which, to modern eyes, ought to be repugnant to a loving God. Does not the fixing of salvation to a name, which as something particular, as something which must be announced and told rather than intuited from inward contemplation or derived from universal human experience, restrict and constrain, rather than open wide the gates of mercy and pardon?

Of course, the same could be said, and indeed has been said, about the Incarnation itself. The paradox, indeed for some the scandal, of the mystery of the Word made flesh, is that he who contains all things was contained in the womb of his Virgin Mother, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger. The same God and Lord submitted to the Law of one particular people, a small and greatly reduced people, in his circumcision, and given a name, a name shared by others of his people and that, like all names, must be told in order to be known.

Yet, if God aims to redeem the human race precisely as human, if his goal was not to set us free from human limits, but rather without erasing those limits to share with us his unbounded life and love, then it is hard to see that God would approach us in any other way. Certainly, he could have done so. Even so, that God effected the salvation of the whole world by assuming a human nature, and with it all the particularities and limits and irreducible local and time-bound features of human life, gives hope to every one of us that, in being caught up in the mystery of God's Triune life, we will not lose our selves. The exaltation of the holy name of Jesus reminds us and assures us that, not generically, not in some undifferentiated mass of human nature nor in some faceless collective, but as irreducibly distinct persons will we be brought to share everlasting glory with him who deigned to receive a human name at human hands and from human lips.

All hail the power of Jesus name!
Let angels prostrate fall;
bring forth the royal diadem,
and crown him Lord of all. 

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Octave of the Nativity of Our Lord

Titus 2:11-15 / Luke 2:21

There is for me something bittersweet about that moment when a Christmas gift is first used: when new shoes are first worn outside, a new journal has an entry first written upon its pages, a nice bottle of spirits is opened and enjoyed. The moment is sweet, of course, because these gifts are lovely in themselves, and making use of them recalls not just their own goodness, but also the generosity of the giver. Besides, no one gives shoes that they might remain in a box, or journals for the pages to remain blank, or bottles of spirits to remain unopened. Such gifts are meant to be used, knowing full well that the using of them leaves an indelible mark of their having been put to use — the scuff marks on the shoe, the pen marks on the journal's pages and the creases in its spine, the growing emptiness of the bottle.

This, however, is what adds a touch of bitterness to the sweetness. So long our presents remain untouched in their brightly wrapped box under the delightfully decorated tree, we seem to extend that happy moment of their first being opened. We can return quite easily in our minds and hearts to that time out of time that is Christmas morning. Once they are used, on the other hand, they are taken irrevocably from this suspended world of Christmas joy to the daily and quotidian. They become marked by the things of the world and enter into the daily course of our lives, filled with papers and projects, with unanswered e-mails and unpaid bills, not the happy cave of Bethlehem with the shepherds and the angels.

So it it with the Lord's Circumcision, which we recall this day. There is in some sense a bitterness here. The purity of the Lord's flesh taken from the Virgin, the untouched and unmarred joy of Christmas Day, becomes on this eighth day marked by pain and by blood, by submission to and fulfillment of the Law in consecration to the Father. The flesh of the Word will now bear a sign, a sign of fidelity to the Covenant, but a sign also of having chosen to share with the sons of Adam everything it means to live in this world. The open-ended character of beginnings is now in crucial ways fixed, directed from this eighth day by name and by knife to Golgotha and the Cross.

Yet, if the Circumcision calls our mind to the Passion, this is not cause for bitterness, but for joy. The Word took flesh, after all, not so that it might remain untouched and unscathed in the cave of Bethlehem, like some gift left in its Christmas wrapping underneath the tree. The Son of God assumed our nature not to guard it against the cuts and scrapes, the engagements and commitments of our daily living, but that by sharing in them, he might draw them up, and us with them, into the mystery of divine life. While even this first shedding of blood would have more than sufficed to cleanse the world and free us from sin and death, the Circumcision inaugurates, rather than completes, the Lord's life in the world. It signals for us a love which knowingly and willingly embraces in freedom what we must often endure unwillingly — pain and sorrow, oath and obligation — and like us has the scars to prove it.