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. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

In the Flesh

Christmas Day 2016

“Flesh”. It’s all around us.
It titillates - advertising agencies know this in getting us to buy a particular product.
It troubles – “my body is not perfect, I must see a surgeon”. We are horrified by the layers of unnecessary flesh, fat, and celluloid clinging to our bones.
It terrifies – zombie movies and TV detective shows with half decayed cadavers on the cold steel of the mortuary table.
It tantalises – we will all be wanting to lose weight after Christmas. Some of us at the gym, some of us on steroids to boost our self-esteem.
It traumatises – some of us are repulse by raw flesh and won't go anywhere near the butcher.
In our culture, we continue to fear the things of the flesh or at least to keep at arm’s length some of the realities of fleshly life. This culture does not approve of unwanted hair, unwanted odours, or unwanted signs of aging. It’s a new form of Gnosticism.

And yet, this is what we celebrate today – the outrageous miracle of Christmas. The feast of God in the flesh. In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton recalls how skeptical critics like to point out to believers how odd it is to say that a new-born baby is the eternal God, or that He had made the sun and all the stars. Christians, however, had clearly noticed the wonderful strangeness of the Incarnation long before the critics. They found it not a little odd, but overwhelmingly so, and altogether wonderful. As Chesterton noted, “We hardly needed a higher critic to draw our attention to something a little odd about (the very thing we) have repeated, reiterated, underlined, emphasized, exulted in, sung, shouted, roared, not to say howled in a hundred thousand hymns, carols, rhymes, rituals, pictures, poems and popular sermons.” An outrageous act to be sure, because in joining us in the fullness of our humanity, our lives are made holy once and for all.

Today is the feast of God in the flesh. At Christmas we remember that the word “Incarnation” is from the Latin “in caro” which literally means “in the flesh”. That is what we just heard in the Prologue of St John’s Gospel – Jesus, the Eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. The Invisible Deity became visible. St John the Evangelist deliberately used the crude, blunt word, “flesh.” It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that ‘Word,’ with a capital ‘W,’ and ‘flesh,’ undoubtedly with a small ‘F,’ were the polar opposites in the way John’s hearers thought. The sophisticated Greeks recoiled from the word flesh in regard to Deity. Flesh, to them, was corruptible, temporary, and doomed to be destroyed and cast aside. No God would deal with anything as degrading as human flesh. Yet that is exactly what God did. In becoming flesh, God accepted the limitations of humanity. But there is more to it. The coming in flesh by God was for a rather grisly and visceral end.

God meets us in the flesh, God dies for us in the flesh, and now God feeds us with His flesh. We are known, joined, partnered, loved and nourished in the flesh. Sounds absurd, right? But when you drill down into it, it does make sense. The world is mucked up. Only a sacrifice of flesh is sufficient to fix it all up and a special kind of flesh at that. The world was in  need of a major organ transplant in order to survive and mutate into the next level of evolution.

When you think about it, it was an outrageous act on God’s part to become human, to become flesh, to become frail. This is what God did when He became flesh. With a mysterious mixture of Divine grace and love, He performed the greatest act of condescension of all time and eternity. With such limitless power, the Word of God that could not be contained by the universe condescended to be compressed into human flesh. St Augustine paints this divine condescension in livid colours. “Creator of heaven and earth, He was born on earth under heaven. Unspeakably wise, He is wisely speechless; filling the world, He lies in a manger; Ruler of the stars, He nurses at His mother’s bosom, Man’s Maker was made man, that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breasts; that the Bread might be hungry, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired from the journey; that the Truth might be accused by false witnesses, the Judge of the living and the dead be judged by a mortal judge, Justice be sentenced by the unjust, . . . that Life might die. He was made man to suffer these and similar undeserved things for us.”

Faith in the Incarnation speaks such large ideas that both stagger and delight the mind, and it speaks so great a mercy and kindness that it is hardly possible to teach it as if it were some everyday fact. The Catechism of the Catholic Church spells out beautifully the profound significance and the reasons why the Son of God became man (456-60).

The first truth of the Incarnation, is that He came to save me! God Himself became a little baby, a growing child, a young man; He suffered every manner of poverty and pain, and He died upon the cross—for me! And it is because He is my God that His salvation is so complete. Today, the world has forgotten that it is so in need of salvation. Many governments, non-governmental organisations and even religions have attempted to ‘save’ mankind from the humiliations of grinding poverty and unjust powers of this world. But we need to be saved from even more than that. We need to be saved from our own sins, and from all the pain and heartache and danger that penetrates the world because of sin.

This leads us to the second truth – How much I am loved! God Himself became man, and He Himself suffered for us, so that we could see and feel how much we are loved. Christmas, just like Easter and Good Friday, is the Feast of God’s love. When we see that it was the very Son of God, truly God, who suffered the humiliation of becoming a defenceless baby, who suffered the most bitter things, even death, willingly for us, we are allowed to see the immensity of God’s love and compassion. For Christians, the evidence and proof of the Lord’s own heroic love is contained in this simple statement – “He died for me.” But in order to die, He must first assume human flesh and life.

The third truth is by far the most outrageously imaginable – He gives us divine life. God’s becoming man was that great exchange: He took on our humanity in order that we may assume His divinity. Certainly, not a fair exchange but we shouldn’t be complaining because we got the best end of the deal. Through this humiliation of the Son of God we are lifted up, made sharers of the divine nature, able even now to share His divine life by faith, hope, and love. Because of what the Son of God experienced and did in our human nature, every man and woman is able to live a divine life, to be a friend of God, and come to see God in the infinite gladness of eternal life.

There can be no Christmas, in fact, there can be no Christian faith or life, without confessing that the Son of God, who is eternally God with the Father, has truly become our brother. Faith in Jesus is everything for the Catholic faith, not just the Eternal Logos, but also in the Incarnated Word who took flesh in a mortal woman’s womb and was born in Bethlehem. As God has given himself to us in the flesh of Jesus Christ, so we are to give ourselves back to Him in our own flesh, in our hands and feet and faces in the world.   In our ordinary daily living, in you and me. It is in Christ, as the Communion Antiphon for this mass attest, “all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” “O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.”

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Feast of Miracles

Christmas - Mass during the night

We've all wondered how exactly Santa Claus manages to deliver toys to millions of children around the world in just a single night. Flying around on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeers without colliding with any other aircraft or being shot down in restricted airspace, stuffing all those toys in a voluminous sack that seems to have an endless capacity, squeezing his triple XL frame through incredibly small chimneys, wearing a loud red suit that cries to be spotted and yet no one does, doesn’t help to corroborate the credibility of the story. Everything clearly defies logic. You are compelled to either conclude that there is something truly magical about Christmas or that the whole affair seems outright ludicrous and impossible. If you think that this story is incredible, what about the real story of Christmas – how God leaps down from heaven, and crawls into a stable where animals were housed, and found residence there.

And yet, this is the night on which we celebrate the impossible that has been made possible. To borrow a phrase from G.K. Chesterton’s Christmas poem, ‘The House of Christmas’, “Things that cannot be, and (yet) that are.” It cannot be that we should find God in a dirty stable, what more, laid in a manger meant for food fit only for animals. It cannot be that here we would find in this tiny defenceless child, divinity and humanity wrapped in love, a marriage of heaven and earth sealed in a manger. It cannot be that God chose to be homeless in order to bring us home. This then makes the story of Santa Claus pale by comparison. But again, “things that cannot be, and (yet) that are.”

We should not be afraid nor embarrassed of joining with the unbelievers, critics and skeptics in saying that our belief in Christmas is unbelievable. Let’s be honest - It is unbelievable! It requires nothing short of a miracle. Just consider what this celebration entails.
It is impossible for something infinite to be bounded by margins. And yet it has actually happened.
It is impossible for that which is outside time to be affected by time. And yet it has actually happened.
It is impossible for a virgin to bear a child. And yet she has.
It is impossible for the intellect to apprehend the ineffable. And yet it has been handed to us.
It is impossible for God to become something other than God without ceasing to be God. And yet it has actually happened.
Our faith is impossible, irrational, incredible, incredulous, incomprehensible, and unbelievable. And yet we believe it, because it is true. It has actually happened.
There are miracles galore in the Christmas story. “Things that cannot be, and (yet) that are.”

The great Western Father and Doctor of the Church, St Augustine, captures this point so beautifully in one of his Christmas sermons, “He lies in a manger, but He holds the world...
He is wrapped in swaddling clothes, but He gives us the garment of immortality... He finds no room in the inn, but He builds a temple for Himself in the hearts of those who believe.” And in another steering sermon, this holy bishop reminds us that “He who filled the world, did not find a place at the inn. Placed in the manger, He became our food.” Truly a paradox if you think of it. The manger, a filthy feeding trough meant for animals, contains food for immortality, the antidote to death, the elixir of life. Christ becomes spiritual food for us, bread for the world. In Bethlehem, which literally means “the house of bread,” the Bread of Life is born. Incredible, right? The world is simply outraged and screams, “Unbelievable!” They would rather settle for Santa Claus than for Christ. And yet, “things that cannot be, and that are” on this special night.

Everything about Christmas is so improbable. And yet it is all true. We celebrate the things that cannot possibly be....And yet they are. We celebrate God’s unfathomable love, a love that will not be defeated nor limited by the natural restrictions of creation, the enormity of human sin, the incredulity of man, the width and breath of man’s intellect. Christmas indeed makes possible what man has always dismissed as impossible. It brings together the greatest of all opposites: God, who surrenders His power to become a helpless infant. The One who lives in the freedom of eternity binds Himself in time. He whom the universe could not contain chose to be confined within the womb of a simple mortal woman. God - a simple, unchangeable spirit - takes on corruptible human flesh. This is the greatest jest of all. Chesterton expressed it in these words: “And on that sacred jest the whole of Christianity doth rest.” Yes, Christmas is the celebration of that sacred jest, the mirth of God, in the bringing together of opposites in a surprising, unexpected and frankly impossible way. And yet, “things that cannot be, and (yet) that are.”

Tonight, we celebrate the night of miracles. That’s good news for all of us. However, for some of you Christmas will be lonely this year.  Some of you are carrying heavy burdens today. Some of you are facing a financial crisis that looks hopeless to you right now. Some of you are out of work and don’t have a single lead on a good job. Some of you are looking at a marriage that seems worse than hopeless. Some of you are estranged from members of your own family. Some of you have children who are far away from God. Some of you feel lonely and far away from God yourselves. The list goes on and on. But all these things have this in common: they seem impossible to be solved by any human means. And for the most part, they are. After all, if human means could have solved your problems, they would have been solved long ago.

Remember this: Christmas is all about miracles. God specialises in things thought to be impossible. He does the things that we can’t even imagine. And only in Him, things that cannot happen, can happen; things that cannot be resolved, are resolved; an every impasse that cannot be broken, will find a break through.  In fact, God is able to do exceedingly and abundantly more than we ask or can imagine. When things don’t make sense or arouse fear in your mind, trust Him. Trust in His word. Trust in the One who speaks impossible things and make them happen. Trust in the One who can make the darkness of this night as bright as daylight, and He has.

Whatever home you have to return to tonight, or even if you have no home at all, know that your true home is just outside that soft circle of light within the Bethlehem stable, as you kneel beside the shepherds.  Let us therefore crawl and creep, nay, let us run with speed to the manger of Our Lord and Saviour, or in the words of Chesterton, “to the place where God was homeless and all men are at home.” Here in this little manger, you would find the Miracle of Miracles. God in the flesh, our Redeemer, our Saviour, our most trusted Friend. Gloria in excelsis Deo! Merry Christmas!