Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Loftiest Title

Solemnity of Mary Mother of God

A week after Christmas, most shopping malls are already over the hype that led up to that celebration. But our own Christian celebration of Christmas, however, has not ended. Though, it is the shortest liturgical season in our Church’s calendar, the Church does not hesitate to pull out all the stops to surprise and entice us with a slew of celebrations. While the world celebrates the threshold of a new year, the Church invites us to pause to consider one of the major implications of Christmas and the Incarnation: the woman who gave birth to Emmanuel – God with us. The Mass of today salutes her who in her womb bore the King of heaven and earth, the Creator of the world, the Son of the Eternal Father, the Sun of Justice. By virtue of her relationship to Jesus Christ, the Church honours her with the loftiest title possible for any human person, “Mother of God.”

How can it be, that a human being, the Blessed Virgin Mary, becomes the Mother of God?  Why would the Church, or to be more precise, the Holy Spirit inspire both St Luke to record the event of the Visitation and St Elizabeth to utter these words, ‘Mother of my Lord’? The easy answer is: God willed it so, He willed to be born of a woman. But here comes the technical answer: We hail Mary with such a lofty title in virtue of her role in the plan of salvation which Saint Paul so beautifully summarised: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman… so that we might receive adoption as sons.” To acclaim Mary as the Mother of God is to acclaim Jesus Christ as the Son of God, God made man. The title of Mary is actually Christological. To deny one would be to deny the other.

Objection to this lofty title is not something new or which arose from the Protestant Reformation. In fact, objection to the title "Mother of God" arose as  early as the fifth century, due to confusion concerning the mystery of the Incarnation. Nestorius, the Bishop of Constantinople, was the major inciter of this controversy. He argued that Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, a regular human person, period. To this human person was united the person of the Word of God (the divine Jesus). This union of two persons, the human Christ and the divine Word, was "sublime and unique" but merely accidental. The divine person dwelt in the human person "as in a temple;" a kind of divine ‘possession.’ Following his own reasoning, Nestorius asserted that the human Jesus died on the cross, not the divine Jesus. As such, Mary is not "Mother of God," but simply "Mother of Christ"--the human Jesus. Sound confusing? It is, but the result is the splitting of Christ into two persons and the denial of the Incarnation.

The matter was finally settled in the Council of Ephesus in the year 431. The Council condemned Nestorius and officially declared the faith of the Church as this: that Jesus is one person, with two natures--human and divine, united in a true union. He has a divine nature from all eternity and in time taking a human nature from Mary. Second, the Council affirmed that our Blessed Mother can rightfully be called the Mother of God. Mary is not Mother of God, the Father, or Mother of God, the Holy Spirit; rather, she is Mother of God, the Son, Jesus Christ. The Council therefore came to this conclusion by virtue of this simple syllogism:  Mary is the mother of Jesus. Jesus is God. Therefore, “Mary is the Mother of God.” Thus Mary was accorded this grand title not for reasons of sentiment or piety, but as a bulwark against heresy and a safeguard for the Truth of the Incarnation. Mary protects both the humanity and the divinity of Jesus. Today, when the divine motherhood of Mary is being challenged, we need to recognise that more than her dignity is at stake – it is our belief in the Incarnation and in the divinity of Christ that is potentially at risk.

The Church rejoices that the human role in the divine plan is pivotal. The Son of God comes to earth, appears in order to redeem the world, He becomes human to incorporate man into His divine vocation, but humanity takes part in this. If it is understood that Christ’s “co-nature” with us is as a human being and not some phantom or bodiless apparition, that He is one of us and forever united to us through His humanity, then devotion to Mary also becomes understandable, for she is the one who gave Him His human nature. She is the one through whom Christ can call Himself “The Son of Man” without ceasing to be the Son of God.

Having considered the theological controversy of this title, there is another subtler problem which the Church has to address in defending the titles of Mary. The Church, more than ever, has to justify the need for such honorifics and titles, in a culture that treats these things with suspicion and disdain as they are deemed offensive to both the virtue of humility and the egalitarian ideals of democracy. Our Archbishop Emeritus has often been the target of slanderous speculations that he covets titles of honour conferred by the government on public personages. Let’s set the record straight. The lofty title of Tan Sri, the highest honour to be accorded to a civilian citizen, is actually accorded to him in his capacity of being a visible face of the Catholic Church in Malaysia. In conferring such a title on the primate of the Church in Malaysia, it is actually the Church which is being recognised and honoured.

Those who generally criticise titles being conferred either on the living or the saints may really be labouring under a deeper hatred for authority. Wishing to rule themselves, to free themselves from the Sovereign authority of Christ even as some of them refuse to refer to Him as "Lord," they desire the extinction of all distinctions – between God and man, between the hierarchical church and the lay faithful. To accomplish this, at least in the "theological" sphere, it was necessary to create a "flat" deity, a one-dimensional "god" to whom all creation was little more than a huge, bland "soup" - a mixture of beings with no strata, no hierarchy, no authority, no royalty and, ultimately, no virtue. With no superiors, no Saints and no degree of spiritual excellence, with the disappearance of distinction and hierarchy, we finally also witness the vanishing of humility and obedience. In an accurate and filial understanding of Christianity, the proper veneration of the Blessed Virgin by way of the reverence shown to her glorious titles, is one of the most elegant examples of acknowledging the order superimposed by God on His Creation. The recognition of these titles places us in a balanced, proper relationship with the Sacred, by allowing us to exercise humility while still being able to enjoy our dignity as the Adopted Sons and Daughters of God.

Finally, whenever we offer fitting praise to Mary through Her glorious titles, we imitate the Blessed Trinity in a very concrete way. According to the gospels, each Divine Person of the Trinity has bestowed a particular title of honour on the Blessed Virgin. God the Father, through His messenger Gabriel, gives her the title "Full of Grace." God the Son, addressing the Beloved Disciple from the Cross, publicly recognises her title of "Mother", "Behold your mother". And, again, God the Holy Spirit, through her cousin Elizabeth, enshrines forever her title of "Theotokos", Mother of God. If such is the honour paid directly to our Blessed Mother by God, how can we even dare to suggest that our own poor human praises can ever be either sufficient or over-abundant? And so at the beginning of a New Year, we join our voices to Christians of every age as we lovingly invoke her titles and seek her intercession, “Pray for us O Holy Mother of God … that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ”

Thursday, December 26, 2013

This Ain't no Perfect Family

Holy Family Year A

Just last Wednesday we celebrated the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, more popularly known as Christmas. Today the Church pays homage to the Holy Family. The proximity of these two feasts is intended to remind us that Christmas and the family are intimately linked. It’s easy to think the Incarnation means God took on a human body; that he appeared in human flesh. But there is much more to it than that. In Jesus, God unites himself to an entire human nature.  He fully enters into human experience, with all its peaks and valleys. And a part of that human experience, with more than its share of peaks and valleys, is family. Christ came as a member of a human family to enable us to be part of God’s family.

But there is something more which the liturgy wishes to convey to us by this connection: the Christmas season is one of light but also of shadow.  The day after Christmas, we celebrate the feast of the proto martyr, St. Stephen. Two days later, we mark the feast of the Holy Innocents, the children slaughtered by Herod. The joy of Christ’s birth is suddenly tempered by tragic reminders of what the Incarnation cost. The white permanently stained by the red. And the Holy Family shared in that. One can see a trajectory being drawn from the wood of the manger to the wood the cross. In so many ways, these two singular events are inseparable.  One led to the other. Joy and sorrow are side by side, linked by sacrifice, by faith, and by love.  It is the story of salvation.  And it is the story of the Holy Family.

Now when we hear the title of this celebration, the Solemnity of the Holy Family, we are inclined to just dismiss the possibility that our families can be like the Holy Family.  The personages of Jesus, Mary and Joseph can at first seem to be too unreachable an ideal for our own family. Every family is far from the ideal because every family is made of unique individuals with their positive qualities and their negative quirks. Perhaps, especially at this time of the year, we are most intensely aware of the limitations of our family - of the various families we are a part of. Family reunions can often be marred by quarrels and misunderstanding. Selfishness, stubbornness, independence can appear to be so great that we can question the integrity of our family as a family, let alone see any real holiness there. In all families, we will witness the same interplay of light and shadow.

In our painful introspection, we forget that the name of our feast is not the Feast of the ‘Ideal Family’ or the ‘Perfect Family’ but of the ‘Holy Family’. The Holy Family was not spared the intermingling of light and shadow. The Holy Family was holy because their lives were centred on God, and not because they were preserve from misfortune and trouble. By today standards, the Holy Family would have been categorised as dysfunctional, far from the ideal. Joseph was married to Mary but is not the biological father of her son. In fact, Mary and Joseph, though publicly married, were actually living sexually continent lives. Right from the beginning, the family was condemned to wander as homeless refugees, fleeing the clutches of a power mad and blood thirsty despot. Poverty would trail them throughout their lives. According to Tradition, which is implied in Sacred Scriptures, Mary seemed to have been widowed at a young age, thus leaving her in the role of a single parent with Jesus orphaned. There is enough juicy stuff here to produce a dark satire of a movie on the Perfect Family!

The Holy Family is proof that God's greatest work on our behalf and for our salvation begins in tragedy, in misfortune, in hardship, in poverty, in silence, and always invisibly. The work of God is never done in a vacuum of imperfection. God is indeed subversive – He uses our darkest experiences and imperfections as the raw material for perfection. Within the Holy Family, we see the ‘perfect’ model for families struggling with their imperfections – the broken families, the single-parent families, the families that are struggling to keep their relationship together. Jesus truly understands what you are all going through and the struggles that you are experiencing - broken relationships, betrayals, and hurts are inevitable. But the Holy Family also gives us a picture of hope. If God is at the center of family life then no matter how big the problem may be, no matter how serious the hurts may have become, no matter how wide the chasm that has grown between individuals, the presence of God assures us that our lives are not ultimately defined by sin but by the love which God has poured and continues to pour as a balm into our lives. Holiness, therefore, is the remedy which heals, strengthens, bonds, and brings about a great measure of the peace for which our hearts so ardently long; for in holiness we embrace Christ, the new beginning of the new creation. In Christ, we get to start all over again.

Today, family life is under siege. Society provides an entire range of products from family therapy to self-help books to assist couples and families to weather the trials and difficulties encountered. What does the Church offer? What can the Church offer? The Church offers us holiness. The only adequate response to the terrible scandal of broken marriages and dysfunctional families, the only fully Catholic response to this scandal — as countless other saints have recognised in every century is holiness! The answer does not lie in family counselling, communication skills, therapy or separation or divorce. The problem with family life today is not just about dysfunctional behaviour, emotional baggage, or cultural influence. It is and always has been a problem of sin, the sin of individualism, the sin of selfishness, the sin of unforgiveness, the sin of infidelity, the sin of pride, the sin of lust. When sin latches onto to our family life, the members slowly forget their most fundamental vocation, that is to be holy. A true return to authentic holiness is the answer to the many ailments which plague us. Every crisis that the family faces, every crisis that the Christian faces, every crisis that the world faces, is a crisis of saints; it is a crisis of holiness.  

It's a tough time to be a married person today. It's a tough time to be in a family today, what more a holy family. The world ridicules holiness. And yet, holiness is the only solution which can save the world. How do families grow in holiness? Sacrifice, prayer and faith are the basic ingredients of holiness. Every family needs to begin by cultivating and promoting a life based on these three – sacrifice, prayer and faith. This may sound naively simple and even simplistic; but quite often the most profound answers to our most pressing problems are fundamentally simple. It is man’s pride and ego which seeks to convolute and complicate.

So, the Holy Family reminds us that family life is not some Utopian ideal where everything is perfect and that there are no struggles. To be ‘Holy’ does not mean you need to be unreal, over-idealistic, Pharisaic or a party-pooper. It does not mean running away from the world or opting out of marriage and family to enter a convent, monastery or seminary. The feast of the Holy Family shows how far off-base these stereotypes of holiness are.  It reminds us, as Vatican II teaches, that all human beings are called to the heights of holiness. That all states in life offer abundant opportunities to grow in faith, hope, and love. That the nitty gritty of family life, if approached with sacrifice, prayer and faith as its foundation, can be a road to profound personal transformation and communion with God. The bottom line is this – we don’t become holy despite the busyness, the troubles, the hard-knocks of family life, but in and through them. Holiness is allowing God to fill up the holes, tie up the loose ends, and smooth over the rough edges that comes with living in a family. In this environment of openness to God's grace, God can do more than we can ask or imagine. And, like the Holy Family, we can be living witnesses, that "nothing is impossible with God."

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

First Born in Eternity then in History

Christmas Mass During the Day 2013

Catholics attending this Mass or a later mass today are often surprised by the Gospel reading. There is no mention of a manger, a stable, shepherds, of Magi, of angels, of Bethlehem or, very surprisingly, of Mary and Joseph. If you came last night, you would not have been disappointed. But this morning’s Gospel starts in a manner which doesn’t seem to be in synch with the season: "In the beginning was the Word," and it continues to speak only of the Word of God. So why is this a Christmas Gospel reading?

Up until the liturgical reforms of the post-Vatican II era, the Prologue of St John’s Gospel, the text we just heard was and is still proclaimed at the very end of every Traditional Latin Mass, thereby earning for itself the misnomer ‘the Last Gospel.’ According to one source, the Last Gospel was inserted here to counter the heresy (prevalent among clergy at the time of its introduction) of denying the Incarnation, and therefore the divinity of Jesus Christ. The priest by reading this passage publicly attests to the orthodoxy of his faith. Whatever may have been the original reason for its insertion, it is a beautiful paradox that the Last Gospel of the Mass takes us back to the beginning, for it opens with the words "In the beginning."

The tradition of reading the prologue on Christmas Day has survived the liturgical reform. Though the practice of reading the Last gospel at the end of mass has been discontinued, it did serve the purpose of climaxing every celebration with the compelling and beautiful truth of the Incarnation, the dogma that speaks of the act and decision of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, becoming man – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The prologue situates the Christmas story outside the confines of human history. In fact, it provides for the words and works of the Incarnate Word an eternal background or origin and proceeds to proclaim his divinity and eternity. He who "became flesh" in time, is the Word himself from all eternity. He is the only-begotten Son of God "who is in the bosom of the Father." He is the Son "of the same substance of the Father," he is "God from God." He receives the fullness of glory from the Father. He is the Word "through whom everything was made. It is for this reason, in response to this great Divine Condescension, that we kneel in humble contemplation of the mystery proclaimed by the Creed, “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”

This focus on the Incarnation and the Divinity of Christ reminds us that we are not celebrating the birthday of a great hero, or a sagely guru, or an illustrious prophet. We are celebrating the birth into human history of the Divine and Eternal Word, the Son of God, the One from whom and in whom all things were made. "The Son of God became man", St Athanasius explains, "in order that the sons of men, the sons of Adam, might become sons of God.” With all the gift giving, merry making, commercialisation of our feast, it is quite easy to forget this very central truth.

While our culture is very open to the likes of Superman, Thor, Spider-man and other “super-beings” who are fictional, it is ironic that man regards the Incarnation, the fact of an Omnipotent God choosing to become mortal, a strange and unbelievable idea. There has been increased hostility and opposition to the biblical doctrine of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the rejection of his divinity. In history there have been those who have sought to sacrifice either the deity of Christ (e.g. the Ebionites) or remove his humanity (e.g. the Docetists). Quite recently there has been a bold attack on the doctrine of the incarnation made by several theologians and scripture scholars. In no uncertain terms the incarnation is dismissed as a myth, along with other fundamental doctrines of the faith. With the rejection of the Incarnation, they are surely evacuating the divine element from Jesus. They are attempting to harmonise the anti-supernaturalism of the modern mind with the church's teaching about Christ. The great quest of liberal theology has been to invent a Jesus who is stripped of all supernatural power, deity, and authority. They are not reinterpreting traditional Christology. They are simply abandoning it.

The doctrine of the Incarnation is central to a Christian celebration of Christmas, a truth that is currently under attack. The doctrine of the incarnation is one which is vital to the Christian faith because other doctrines will stand or fall with it. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “belief in the true Incarnation of the Son of God is the distinctive sign of the Christian faith” (CCC 463). Christianity shares with some other religions belief in an infinite and transcendent God, the source of the world’s being and of all its values. The doctrine of the Incarnation expresses the conviction of Christians that this God has made himself known fully, specifically and personally, by taking our human nature into himself, by coming amongst us as a particular man, without in any way ceasing to be the eternal and infinite God.

Perhaps the best way to underscore the importance of the doctrine of the incarnation is to consider the price for putting it aside. Nowhere is it more beautifully and succinctly articulated than in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which lays down these various reasons for the Incarnation thus pointing to its central significance:
  1. The Word became flesh for us in order to save us (CCC 457). According to the Nicene Creed, we all profess that "For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man."
  2. The Word became flesh so that thus we might know God’s love (CCC 458) – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16)
  3. The Word became flesh to be our model of holiness (CCC 459)
  4. Finally, the Word became flesh to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature.’ (2 Peter 1:4)

Can we truly celebrate Christmas and at the same time deny both the humanity and the divinity of Christ? The answer to that question must be a decisive ‘No’. Those who reject these truths empty our celebration of its essential content – Christmas is not just a celebration of the birthday of our founder, a sentimental reason for gathering as a family, an occasion for gift-giving and carolling, a cultic act to proclaim the legendary charity of Ole St Nicholas. For us Christians, Christmas must always be a celebration affirming our belief in both the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ. The Incarnation does not stand alone as a doctrine that can be severed from the rest. On the contrary, it is an irreducible part of the revelation about the person and work of Jesus Christ. With it, the Gospel stands or falls.

It is often the case that we are invited to admire the humility of our Lord Jesus Christ as he chose to be born in the Spartan conditions of a cave or stable in Bethlehem. But this morning’s liturgy also invites us to humbly kneel in adoration before the one who chose to kneel before his disciples to wash their feet. It’s time to rescue this Feast of Christmas from all that sentimental sugar coating. It is the Feast by which we affirm once again our belief in His Divinity. Together with Pope Benedict, we affirm that our “Faith is simple and rich: we believe that God exists, that God counts; but which God? A God with a face, a human face, a God who reconciles, who overcomes hatred and gives us the power of peace that no one else can give us.”