Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Lamb of Sacrifice

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

It is usually not complimentary to use the names of animals when calling another person. When you say, “You’re an ox,” you are implying that the person is dumb or clumsy. With the use of the name fox, you are inferring that the person is sly. If you call someone a pig, you are suggesting that he is either dirty or eats a lot. A snake would mean that that person is cunning or poisonous. However, there are some animal names which are complimentary, especially when these names are accorded to the Lord. We can immediately grasp the attributes of nobility and strength when referring to the eagle and the lion. But today, Jesus is accorded a title like no other. Thirty times in the New Testament and twice in today’s gospel; “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” The words of St John the Baptist is immortalised and heard in our liturgy.  That formula lies at the centre of what we believe about Jesus.
What does it mean? How does His sacrificial giving of Himself take away our sins? How can one person take sin out of the world? There is a rich background to this concept. The people to whom the Baptist was speaking knew exactly what was meant when John called Jesus the Lamb. This idea of the Lamb of God is a strand that runs throughout the history of redemption. It can be traced all the way back to Genesis, when God called Abraham to go to Mount Moriah and offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. But at the last possible moment, after Abraham had tied Isaac to the altar and was preparing to plunge the knife into his heart, God stopped him. Just behind Abraham, was a ram that was caught in the thicket by its horns. God provided a lamb as a sacrificial substitute for Abraham’s son. This animal would prove to be a substitutionary sacrifice, and that is the idea that underlies the atonement of Christ.

Likewise, the Lamb of God is certainly prefigured in the Passover. When God prepared to bring His final plague on the Egyptians, the death of every firstborn male of the Egyptians, including the crown prince of the Pharaoh, He instructed His people Israel to slay lambs without blemish and to spread the blood on their doorposts. God promised to pass over all the houses where He saw the blood of the lambs on the doorposts. Just as the blood of those lambs caused the people of Israel to be spared from God’s wrath, the Lamb of God redeemed His people from the penalty that was due for their sin.

It was during the time of the Exodus that God gave some very specific instructions to Moses concerning the sacrificing of animals to Him. These sacrifices, made throughout the year, really culminated in an annual sacrifice known as The Day of Atonement.  In Chapter 16 of the Book of Leviticus, the high priest Aaron, in this first instance, was to bring before God two goats over whom he would cast lots to determine which goat was sacrificed and which goat was set free into the wilderness, i.e. the scapegoat.  The idea was that the goat was taking the sin of the community away with it. The two animals reflected the dual nature of atonement that was typified in the Old Testament sacrifice, namely one of expiation, the removal of sin and guilt (this was the scapegoat) and propitiation, the satisfaction of God’s wrath through the sacrifice of atonement (the slaughtered lamb). The lamb that was to be sacrificed was to be without defect and blemish, and only the best of the flock was worthy to be sacrificed to the Lord.
It is clear from all these examples that nothing short of a life was sufficient to redeem another life. The New Testament Book of Hebrews states, “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.”  It took blood to redeem us. But the animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant in themselves did not actually take away sin. They may have given some psychological comfort to those who offered it, but little more. The sacrifices of the old rites were actually pointing ahead to the Lamb in the future who would actually do the job. Jesus is the true Paschal Lamb who freely gave Himself in sacrifice for us, and thus brought about the new and eternal covenant. As the Church Fathers rightly say, figura transit in veritatem: the foreshadowing has given way to the truth itself.  St. Melito of Sardis said this of Him, “It is He who endured every kind of suffering in all those who foreshadowed Him. In Abel He was slain, in Isaac bound, in Jacob exiled, in Joseph sold, in Moses exposed to die. He was sacrificed in the Passover lamb, persecuted in David, dishonored in the prophets.” The ancient rite of sacrificing lambs for the atonement of sins has been brought to fulfilment and definitively surpassed by the loving gift of the incarnate Son of God, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

Ponder the depth of what is happening in the story of Christ’s passion.  Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is not simply a lamb of God but ‘the’ Lamb of God. You cannot get more obvious!  Unlike the sacrificial lambs of old, the people did not choose Him but He came of His own will, fulfilling His Father’s will, to suffer for our sins and die there on our behalf. At the crucifixion, Jesus, the innocent and sinless victim, takes all of our sins unto Himself.  He does not just bear our sins and suffer the due punishment for us; no, Jesus Himself expiates the sins.  He as Priest offers Himself on the altar of the cross.  Through His blood He washes away sin.  However, unlike the Passover lamb that was slaughtered, roasted and eaten, our Lord rose from the dead, conquering both sin and death.  He has truly delivered us from the slavery of sin, shown us the path of salvation, and given us the promise of everlasting life.  He has made a new, perfect and everlasting covenant with His own blood.  For this reason, Christianity, among all the religions and philosophies of the world, is the only one that worships the scapegoat.

Despite how modern people would constantly spin the Christian story, Jesus' is no mere inspirational story designed to draw out the good in us and lead us to emulate Him.  Jesus is not some prototype of what we can be if only we tried harder.  He is not some motivational coach to help us discern the wise path to success. No, Jesus did not merely come to shine the light on goodness but to expose sin to His Light, to suffer for sin, to die its death for us, and to be raised to draw us unto Himself.  Jesus came for sin, to wear it for us and bear it for us, that we might wear His righteousness and bear the baptismal mark of the people of God. He came to do what only He can do and we can never possibly accomplish on our own. Everyone in this Church deserves just punishment for our sins and today we are reminded once again that there is only one that can lift that sentence – He is Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

The question facing us is simple – where do you find this Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?  Is He a creation of your own imagination?  No, I will tell you where the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world really is. He is here in this mass. St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) preached of how the mass symbolised the Passion of Christ:  “What Christ did not suffer on the Cross, He suffers in the sacrifice for thee.” He is here hidden in the bread and wine that ceases to be bread and wine at the consecration. He is here, in the flesh, in the Body made substantial and tangible and real, held up by the priest at the moment before we are invited for communion. He is here, as the priest boldly repeats those ancient words that first appeared on the lips of the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world,” and then adds, “blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb”; to which we reply, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Words suggesting much humility and modesty, and yet hopefully spoken with the same excitement of the Baptist who uttered it for the first time on the banks of the River Jordan. Just like him, we get to behold more than just what meets the eye. With eyes of faith and wonder, we behold our salvation and our redemption.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Always begin with the star

Epiphany Year B

‘Always begin with the star!’ That would be the most annoying piece of advice my older brother had to offer me whenever we came to that time of the year when the Christmas tree had to go up. I felt that he took great condescending pleasure in saying this because he knew that only he was tall enough to place the first bulb of the string of Christmas lights on the crown of the tree, just behind the star. Since, I was a vertically challenged runt next to my brother, I was given the demeaning task of decorating the lower portion of the tree. What compounded my frustration was that the Christmas lights which always had to begin at the top, was never long enough to cover the whole length of the tree. The lights would always stop three-quarters way down the tree, leaving ‘my section’ in darkness. Due to the lack of light, my decorations, which I had painstakingly and delicately placed on the tree, were all hidden in the shadows. It would seem that my efforts were always an exercise in futility.

I endured the humiliation for years, and awaited the opportunity to finally assume the responsibility of deciding how to place the Christmas lights on the tree. I thought, when I had my way, I would start from the bottom. The time finally arrived when my brother left for overseas. It then fell on me to set up the entire Christmas tree on my own. I was ecstatic at the realisation that I would finally be able to put up the Christmas lights according to my own designs, and not having to listen to the dictates of my brother. It was my time to shine!

And so I began with the first bulb at the bottom of the tree. I began twirling the lights around the tree, already imagining what a splendid looking final product awaited me at the end. But in my excitement and, of course, in my hubris I had forgotten that the lights were not long enough. I started to stretch, rearrange and reposition the lights but despite my best efforts, those lights resisted all attempts to reach the top. As I stood back in exasperation, my mother stepped out of the kitchen, and to add further injury to my wounded pride, she took a single look at my handiwork and remarked: “Have you already forgotten what your brother said, “Always begin with the star!”

A star figures prominently in today’s gospel. The wise men from the East presented their request before Herod by saying that they “saw His star as it rose and have come to do Him homage.” What was this ‘star’ that had stirred their hearts and compelled them to leave their homeland and travelled to far distant regions? Over the centuries, astronomers have tried to find an actual star of Bethlehem. Some have said that the star was a comet that appeared in 5 B.C. (and found in Chinese records). Others suggested a planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Still others suggest a supernova. No one knows for certain if the star was an actual astronomical event. The Star of Bethlehem could very well have been one of these. But it isn’t so much about something seen in the sky as it is about something that was seen on earth. Or rather, ‘someone’ who was seen on earth — and who will be seen here again. And He is the real “star” of Bethlehem: Jesus.

For those who remain fixated on solving the mystery of the celestial star may have gotten their hands on a red herring. That star is definitely not the point of the story. In the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict, “it is not the star that determines the child’s destiny, it is the child that directs the star.” Our Epiphany story is not about the appearance of a celestial star so much as it is about the appearance of the presence and glory of God, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. This is what the word ‘epiphany’ implies – a manifestation. Literally, it means “shine on” or “show forth.” Among the Eastern Christians, the word leaves no room for ambiguity – it is a theophany – the Child is a manifestation of God.

St Ambrose, the great Doctor of the Church and mentor of St Augustine, wrote this about the star, “The Wise Men make a gift of their treasures. Do you want to know what an excellent honour they received? The star was visible only to them; where Herod lived it was invisible; where Jesus lay, it once again became visible and pointed out the way. So it is that this star is also the way, Christ's way; for Christ, in the mystery of the Incarnation, is the star, because “a star shall come forth from Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel” (Num 24:17). Therefore, wherever Christ is, the star is too, for He is ‘the bright morning star’ (Rev 22:16). With His light, then, He points to himself” (Comment on Luke II, 45).

Today, the Church invites us to fix our vision on that illuminating star, not a thing but a person; it is Christ who is our “bright morning star.” (Rev 22:16) The morning star, which is actually the planet Venus, derives its name from the fact that it appears before sunrise. On a long dark night, the appearance of the morning star means daybreak is imminent. This is exactly what Christ does. He is the light shining in the darkness, announcing the coming kingdom of God while the world still groans under the curse of the Fall. He is the first to be resurrected—the ‘firstborn of the dead’ as Colossians 1:18 puts it.

For thousands of years mariners and travellers, just like the wise men in our story, have used the stars as a guide; as a point of reference.  Likewise, Christ, the bright and morning star is our true point of reference. If you are lost, you just need to look at Him. If you are unclear about the direction of your life, just turn to Him. Notice that He is not “a” point of reference.  He is “the” point of reference. He is not just a star among many stars; He is unique.  The trouble is that on a clear night, we are bombarded with a vision of countless constellations of stars in the sky; it's hard to tell which one is the real star of the story.  So just like the infamous Herod of our story, many are consumed with their own self-importance and they actually believe that they are the ‘star,’ and that the light of another star would never be tolerated. Yes, there can only be one star, and He is Christ Our Lord.

It spells certain disaster, whenever one attempts to usurp His limelight. Herod wasn’t the first with delusions of grandeur. The first to suffer from this puffed-up feeling of self-importance was Satan, also described in Scriptures as the Morning Star. Satan may be the brightest morning star among the celestial beings, but he is only a poor imitation of the one true bright morning star, Jesus Christ, the light of the world. It is wise to remember that Satan’s and Herod’s delusions would be the cause of their downfall. Blaise Pascal warns us that this is what happens when God is no longer the point of reference in our lives, “If (people) turn away from God, one of two things can happen. They will think they are gods and go mad, or turn to carnality and become animals”. 

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, gives us a beautiful piece of advice so as not to fall into this trap of self-delusion. “The shepherds and the Magi teach us that to find Jesus we must know how to look up to the heavens, and not to be turned in upon ourselves, on our own selfishness.”  Rather, we must  “open our hearts and minds to God, Who always surprises us, know how to welcome His messages, and respond promptly and generously.” So let us “look up to the heavens,” and see the real star of Bethlehem. If we ever get lost, there is always this star to remind us of our destination. Always remember, it doesn’t begin with us, or with our plans, or with our self interests. It always begins with the Star.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

To see the Mother is to see the Son

Solemnity of Mary Mother of God 2017

There is a story that has become ingrained in Church tradition, that it now forms part of the liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church. It is the story of the multi-talented St Luke – apostle, evangelist, gospel writer, doctor and artist; and his encounter with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Our Lord. Although the details vary with the telling, the basic premise of the story is that after the crucifixion, Mary went to live with the Beloved Disciple, John. There she met St Luke and knowing he was an artist, asked him to paint a portrait of her with Jesus as a young child. In order to make the portrait all the more poignant, she suggested he use the top of a cedar or cypress table that had been made by Jesus when he worked as a carpenter in St Joseph’s workshop. While being painted, the Blessed Lady is said to have told St Luke the stories of Jesus’ life that he later incorporated into his gospels. Thus one could say that the gospel of St Luke may have possibly been an edited version of the original oral gospel narrated by Our Blessed Lady Mary that was never written nor published.

But today, when I speak of the gospel according to Mary, I am not referring to the version written by St Luke, but rather to the manner in which the Church uses Mary as the primary visual aid to teach her flock and the world about the good news of Christ. The Gospel of Mary is perhaps the most tender and yet most profound gospel of Our Lord. She is the key for us to understand, to penetrate the very mysteries of the person and ministry of Christ himself. The Church uses the titles of Our Lady to expound the deeper mysteries of her son. And why would she do this? Well, it would be good to consider an analogy from pedagogy and art.

Have you ever tried to describe a work of art which is a masterpiece, without having the actual painting in front of you? We can only imagine the frustration experienced by both the speaker and the listener. From the age of cave-men right down to the modern classroom, it is a proven fact that the learner better understands and retains knowledge when ideas, words and concepts are associated with images. People need to see in order to learn. Our brains are wired to rapidly make sense of, and remember visual input. More so, when it comes to beauty. It is so much more important to see beauty with our own eyes rather than to attempt to conceptualise it from the description given by another. It is close to impossible to visualise a piece of art unless the painter translates and transfers the image in his mind onto a piece of canvas. This is what the four Marian dogmas attempt to do. They help us visualise and in fact enflesh the very mysteries of Christ. That is why we can safely say that these Marian dogmas are essentially Christological. They have as much to say about Christ as they do about Mary.

Today’s feast invites us to contemplate one, perhaps the greatest, of the four great Marian Dogmas, Mary, the Mother of God. This title is not simply honorific, a piece of flattery which seems to border on idolatry. Are we claiming that a mortal person has been raised to a rank which is superior to God? This is certainly not the intention of the Church. This title takes us beyond the biological fact that Mary was a biological mother. This, however, is more a statement of Jesus’ divinity than of Mary’s maternity. It tells us about the nature of her Son. The answer to the question: “Was Mary the mother of God?” is found in the question “Who and what was Jesus Christ?” The two questions are as inseparable as are, Mary and her Son.

When we answer the question “Who was Mary’s Son?” and base our response on what the Scriptures tell us, there is only one answer possible. He is truly Man, without diminishing the fact that He is also truly God. He possesses the nature of God and the nature of man. His two natures do not make Him two different persons. He is Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, true God and true man. This therefore is the full meaning of the Mother of God - She gave, to an invulnerable God of miraculous power, the vulnerability of a body which could suffer, die and save. This is the fact of the Incarnation and the core of our Christian Creed.

This is what we affirm whenever we recite the Creed. At the point where the congregation bows in unison, we affirm this vastly important article of faith – the Incarnation, which in the new translation reads like this, “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.” The bow attests to this most significant event – it is as if the whole drama of salvation hangs on just this thread. For without Mary, God’s entrance into history would not achieve its intended purpose. That is, the very thing that matters most in the Creed would be left unrealised – God’s being a God with us, and not only a God in and for Himself. Thus, Mary stands at the core of the profession of faith in the living God, and it is impossible to imagine it without her. It would be no exaggeration to say that she is an indispensable, central component of our faith in the living, acting, loving God. The Word becomes flesh – the eternal meaning grounding the universe enters into her. There would be no masterpiece to speak of, or admire, or made visible to the world, without the canvas on which it was painted.

And so we honour her today by her greatest title, because it was she who gave us our Saviour, the Mother of the Saviour, the Mother of God. This truth is at once so outrageous, and yet so essential to our faith and to our salvation that it caused massive theological rows in the earliest times of the Church’s history which was finally settled in the Council of Ephesus in the year 451 A.D. But, today, the title has once again become controversial, even for us Catholics. Perhaps, due to attacks from Protestants, we have become embarrassed of such titles being accorded to Mary or to any other human person. How could a mere human give birth to God? And yet, it is precisely this preposterous belief that forms the basis for our celebration of Christmas. God did not become man in a vacuum. He did not beam Himself down from the heavenly heights and materialise in human form. In order for Him to assume our humanity, the Blessed Virgin Mary truly had to give birth to God. It is because we can see the Mother, that we can truly say that we have seen the Son, we have seen God.

Of course, we are not saying that Mary brought God into being. If this was the case, then together with the Protestants we have much cause for concern, because it would mean raising a mere creature to a level above her Creator. This is not what the Church teaches. Mary did not exist before God, but she existed before God took human nature in her womb. Although Mary is the Mother of God, she is not His mother in the sense that she is older than God nor the source of her Son’s divinity, for she is neither. Rather, we say that she is the Mother of God in the sense that she carried in her womb a divine person—Jesus Christ, God “in the flesh.” 

The Son and the Mother thus form a unity. This explains why from the start they were called the new Adam and the new Eve, although we are very clearly aware that Jesus, as the Son of the Eternal Father, stands on an entirely different level from Mary, who is a simple human being. But even though Mary’s holiness and role in salvation's history depend entirely on the saving grace of God and Christ, we must insistently emphasise how intensely the Son wanted to be dependent on the Mother, how much of Himself He wanted to owe to His Mother. As much as the Incarnation is the gratuitous work of God which only God alone can perform, Mary’s role in the Incarnation can never be trivialised or neglected. Without a human mother, the Son of God could not fully be human whilst still retaining His full divine nature. A masterpiece owes its visible value to the canvas on which it was painted, even though the art and the material on which the same was painted are never on the same level. Together, Mary and Jesus both illustrate vividly how God has truly become one with man and man, one with God.