Saturday, December 30, 2017

Not Flattery but Theology

Solemnity of Mary Mother of God 2018

Today is the culmination of the Octave of Christmas, the eight-days celebration of the feast that started on Christmas Eve. We keep this Octave Day as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. What a beginning to the year it is, to begin with Mary as mother. In other words, we don't let Christmas end without looking explicitly at the role of Mary, the indispensable part she played in the Incarnation and thus in our whole religion. 

Holy Mary, Mother of God': we say this whenever we say the Hail Mary. We say it so often that we can easily forget what a strong, startling, even shocking, phrase it is. How can Mary, or any mortal woman for that matter, be literally the Mother of God? Well, both Protestants and Muslims would vehemently object to this, albeit for different reasons. It is not just preposterous as it is incredulous, but also downright blasphemous. God has no beginning, or as the Muslims put it, “God has not begotten and is not begotten.” As far as they are concerned, it is impossible for a human woman to be Mother of God. And even if Protestants agree that Jesus is indeed the son of Mary as well as being the son of God, they would refuse to accord to her that august title that seems to place her above God Himself. It sounds more pagan than Christian.

But no: it is the Christian and Catholic faith that Mary is Mother of God; so it is necessary to understand it properly. Our Eastern brethren prefers the Greek term theotokos to that of Mother God, which means: ‘God-bearer’, because the one she bears is God. This title had been given her in popular devotion from the second century onwards, and it was confirmed by the Council of Ephesus in AD 431 as a sure way of asserting the full divinity of her Son.

When we say ‘Mother of God’, therefore, we are not saying that Mary is the origin of the Godhead. God has no beginning. In this sense, it is true that God does not have parents.  But when we use the title ‘Mother of God,’ we are saying that the one whom Mary bore is God: God-made-man, the eternal Word of the Father uniting Himself to our life so that we can share in His. We believe that the One she conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father’s eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. The title is first saying something about the Son, rather than about the Mother. It affirms the Divinity of Christ. It compresses into one word all that is spelt out in the Nativity stories we hear, in the carols we sing and the cribs where we worship, in all that we ponder and contemplate, during the Christmas season.

At the same time ‘Mother of God’ is also saying something about Mary. It is from her that Jesus received His humanity, just as we all do from our mothers. No other human being could be so close to God as she, for no other human being could claim such intimate connexion to the level of biology and physiology. Therefore, our veneration of Mary is not misplaced because Mary lies at the heart of the Christian mystery, especially at the heart of the two fundamental mysteries of our salvation – His Incarnation and His death and resurrection. If Our Lord did not receive His humanity from her, then Christmas would be a lie and the resurrection would be a fairy tale. And like all true human mothers, her relationship with her Son is permanent. Our mothers never cease to be our mothers even though we may have emerged from under their nurturing care, and they do not cease to be our mothers even when they have passed on. Likewise, Mary, the Holy Theotokos, is eternally the mother of the Man who died and rose again, who now rests in the bosom of the Father, and draws us to Himself in His Body.

In these matters, our words often falter, but art can still be far more eloquent. The many depictions of the Madonna and child and of the Holy Theotokos in the East, leads to a visual contemplation of what we had been considering with mere theological concepts. These visual depictions of Our Lady demonstrate to us that we do not have to turn away from Jesus in order to see his Mother. The woman and the child forms a composite picture. One would not be complete without the other. The Mother always points us back to her Son. The way of Mary is the way to Jesus Christ. Mary is contemplating Jesus, perhaps, or indicating Him with her hand – as in the kind of Greek icon which is called hodegitria: literally ‘pointing the way’ or in the West, Our Lady of the Way. In St John's Gospel, our Lord calls Himself ‘The Way’, so there is an interesting and deliberate ambiguity here. Mary points the way by pointing to the Way that is Jesus Himself, who is our Way to the Father and also our Way of life.  Far from being a distracting alternative to Christ, devotion to Mary attaches us more firmly to Her Son.

But when we contemplate these forms of art of the Madonna and the child, it is also suggested to us that Mary encircles in her arms not just her own Son Jesus, but all those who are destined to have life in Him, the whole human race. As the New Eve she is truly Mother of all the Living, and so, is Mother of each one of us. Small wonder that she is also called ‘Mother of the Church’ by Venerable Pope Paul VI. The affinity between this Mother and her Child will lead to an extraordinary commerce between them. Between Mary and Jesus an exchange is taking place so deep that its significance is endless.  As Blessed Isaac of Stella once said in a sermon, “In the inspired scriptures, what is said in a universal sense of the virgin mother, the Church, is understood in an individual sense of the Virgin Mary, and what is said in a particular sense of the virgin mother Mary is rightly understood in a general sense of the virgin mother, the Church. When either is spoken of, the meaning can be understood of both, almost without qualification.”

At the human, biological level Mary is our precious link to the incarnate Son of God. In the order of grace, something our biological nature could not give us of itself, she is our mother. Christians have found many ways of saying this, beginning of course with meditating and experiencing the words said by Jesus while on the cross. St John provides us with this poignant picture of Jesus from the cross saying to His mother, ‘Woman, this is your son’ and then to the beloved disciple, as in completing this exchange and connexion, ‘This is your mother’. Mary is given as our mother to reverse the consequences of what happened through our primordial mother, Eve, or in Latin, ‘Eva.’ One delightful word-play in Latin thought of ‘Ave’ as in ‘Ave Maria’, the angelic greeting to Mary, is precisely the reversal of the name ‘Eva’.

And so today, we celebrate the fact that Mary is Mother of God. This title is not simply an honorific, a piece of flattery; but one of our most profound confession of faith – the child born of Mary is God, and so she who bore Him is truly deserving, through no personal merit on her part, to the most esteemed title ever granted to one of our race, ‘Mother of God.’ The honour paid to her is an honour paid to all of us. This truth is at once so outrageous, and yet so essential to our faith and to our salvation, that to deny it would be to render our faith bottomless and without foundation. And because of His mother, God saved us in Jesus as one of us: God came to share our human nature so that through His flesh and blood we might share His divine life, and He shared our human nature by entering into our human world through a human mother.  May this truth shine forth as a beacon to carry us into this New Year and into every year, until we meet our Lord face to face. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

A real as it can get

Solemnity of the Holy Family 2017

Christmas, like the Lunar Chinese New Year for the Chinese, seems to be a popular time when people like to get together in a spirit of festivity. It’s a chance for families to gather from far and wide to catch up on the latest. But whether people come together to celebrate the birth of our Lord, or simply get together to see each other and exchange gifts, Christmas can be a mixed time for many. When people get together, in can be as much an occasion of difficulty as joy. Old rivalries and tensions may resurface, and arguments flare up as the Christmas wine loosens the shackles of politeness and self-control. Painful memories long buried tend to emerge when you come face to face with family members which you have deliberately sought to avoid. And for others, there is the pain of loneliness arising from family breakup, the isolation brought about by mental or physical sickness. No wonder suicide rates go up. Smiling faces of people around the family dinner table and peals of laughter can seem a world away from reality.

It doesn’t help when the Feast of the Holy Family follows immediately after Christmas and the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is set up as the benchmark for family life. How could we ever match up to this impossibly perfect standard? In fact, the family group of Jesus, Mary and Joseph can appear too good to be true, not relevant to us in the kind of world we have to live in. They seem to belong to a naive world of unreal, cut-out religious figures, so unlike the conflict and tension, deep-seated resentment and un-forgiveness that so many of us experience in our own families. So many of us would walk away with a sense of guilt that our own family lives are too messy. The painful truth is that not one of us comes from or is perfectly replicating a family that includes the Word made flesh, the Virgin conceived without sin, and the most just Joseph. Our family histories are marked by a Trinity of destruction: sin, violence and disorder.

Nowadays, we are acutely aware of the strains and stresses on family life, we know the statistics about the average time-span of recent marriages and the general decline in the birth-rate. We are alerted to marital infidelities and all kinds of violence within families. All this knowledge can make ideals seem less plausible. Perhaps the media gives realism and importance chiefly to moral weakness or sin, while showing virtue as flimsy and difficult to believe in. We are made suspicious of goodness or it is presented as boring. The goody-goody type of person is smugly and obtrusively virtuous. As for holiness, that can look glib, uninspiring and certainly of not much use in getting on with complicated lives and relationships. It doesn’t help when we have a picture of the Holy Family looking down on us with a judging smug expression and we feel like shouting back, “Come on! Get real!”

But is the Holy Family unreal? I think the Christmas story provides us with a picture that is far from our idealised perception of the Holy Family. The Holy Family, as scripture tells us, is a truly human family, a truly real family, and their story would have made a perfect script for any modern popular reality television show. Perhaps one of the most striking messages of the story of Christmas then, is that family life doesn’t always run smoothly even for this most special of families. Right from the very beginning, there is struggle, hardship, and the need for extraordinary courage and endurance in the face of these difficulties.

It is important for us to remember that the Holy Family’s life was thrown into a crisis even before the birth of Our Lord. Mary was deeply disturbed by the words of the angel Gabriel that she would bear a son though still remaining a virgin. Joseph grappled with the discovery that Mary was with child, and not his child. Shame, betrayal, and the prospect of divorce was very real. The circumstances of the birth of Jesus were not the easiest nor the healthiest. Simeon, in the Temple at Jerusalem, had baffling things to say about the child's future, and predicted that a sword would pierce Mary's soul. And he turned out to be right, when Mary stood beneath the cross of her Son. Soon after that, the peace and stillness of the manger scene is brought to an abrupt end with the news that Herod is in search of Jesus, and plans to kill Him. Joseph takes Mary and Jesus by night on a journey to safety in Egypt. They become refugees, dwelling in a strange land. Many years later, his relatives had to set out to take charge of Jesus, it being said that he was out of his mind. The Holy Family is as real as a family can get.

Therefore, the Feast of the Holy Family is not intended to make us deny the humanity of our family but to acknowledge it and even celebrate it. This is what we celebrate at Christmas: 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. Family life is exceedingly difficult and not even the Holy Family was spared its challenges.

For this reason, the feast of the Holy Family is not intended to make us feel bad that our families fall short of the measure of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Rather, it presents to us the fact that even the messiness of family life is part of our salvation. And our family life like that of the Holy Family is not absolute peace and perfection. The Holy Family exists in a world in which the innocents are slaughtered, in which they become migrants in Egypt, in which they lose their Son in the Temple, in which they gather around Joseph at his death, in which Mary watches her Son die upon a Cross at the hands of the Roman Empire. Even in this mess, salvation does unfold.

So, the Holy Family isn’t a postcard picture perfect family of grinning members. No, that’s not how scripture describes them. The Holy Family keeps its sustaining power and attractiveness, not least because its members and their goodness are for real. For the members of the Holy Family, there were human lives to be lived, always real and at times demanding even for Joseph, a saint, for Mary without sin, and for the incarnate Son of God. The goodness of the Holy Family was tried and tested, and is therefore true and reliable.

Yes, the Feast of the Holy Family completes the Feast of Christmas. The Church understands this because she understands that we all need to hear that the Word became flesh, forever transforming what it means to be in relationship with one another. We all need to hear that God loved us so much that God entered into the messiness of history, not as an idea but embodied in a family. We all need to hear that our salvation is inseparable from those very real obligations that we enter into as members of the human family as a whole—obligations that become gifts. We become holy not by becoming less real but that holiness is what makes us truly real.  So even in the midst of families that have been torn apart by divorce, by abuse, by sin, even in this messiness, the Word has become flesh and lived among us. This truly is the feast worth celebrating. This is the Feast of the Holy Family.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Ineffable, the Incomprehensible Incarnation

Christmas Day Mass 2017

I often look for clues and signs of stupefaction on the facial expressions of Catholics whenever I dangle before them the theologically loaded and unwieldly term of “Incarnation.” The majority would have incomprehension written all over their faces but most would be too embarrassed to seek clarification for fear of being labelled “stupid.”  “Incarnation,” is that some kind of “carnation” like as in a flower? “Incarnation”, isn’t that the same as reincarnation? In fact, reincarnation makes more sense than incarnation. Or better still within the Malaysian context, isn’t “incarnation” the evaporated sweetened milk that we Malaysians like to add to our favourite beverage. If you think that “incarnation” is a strange word to our ears, wait till you understand its meaning! In Latin, it literally means “in the flesh”, here referring to God taking on human flesh. This is what we Christians celebrate at every Christmas and what we hear in the gospel every Christmas morning.

The Prologue of the Fourth Gospel, the most theologically profound of the four gospels, introduces us to the “Word,” or in the original Greek, the eternal “Logos”. What St John says here stands in sharp contrast to the philosophers and commoners of his time. The concept of “Logos” was a familiar term among Greek philosophers. For them, the Logos was an eternal, impersonal Principle. It was equivalent to wisdom, to right living. Something like the Eastern “Tao” or “chi”. The Greeks thought of their gods as far removed and aloof. They had no concern for simple humanity. Yet St John declares that the Logos is not impersonal but personal. He is not far removed but intimate.

What does St John’s prologue have to say about this strange and mysterious “Word”? First, the first verse tells us that the Word is both God and coexistent with God. “In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This Word was next identified as the originator of light and life. “Through him all things came to be … all that came to be had life in him and that life was the light of men, a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower.” Third, the Divine Word was presented as being in the world yet unknown by its creatures. “He was in the world that had its being through him, and the world did not know him.” The Greek philosophers would have no problem with these first three points. But nothing would prepare them for what John is about to spring on them and us.

St John’s Prologue reaches its climax when it is announced that the Logos fully participated in the realm of creation by becoming one of its creatures. “The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory.” The eternal Logos who was with God, who is God, and who created the world, who gave it life and light, became flesh. The Word became flesh. The Word became human flesh, walked our hard earth, and shared our joys and sorrows. This was not only incomprehensible to the Greeks but scandalous and blasphemous to the Jews. It was on Mount Sinai that God spoke to Moses and revealed Himself through His word on two stone tablets. Now, St John informs us, God’s Word, His self-expression has become flesh. It was no longer etched in stone. God’s Word, given to Moses on stone, has now become a human person.

This cardinal doctrine of our Christian faith is what we call the “Incarnation”: the Creator became a part of His creation by taking on human flesh. God the Son became a human being without relinquishing His deity. The doctrine affirms that Jesus Christ was both 100% God and 100% human at the same time. Such teaching transcends human understanding. It is not enough that the Incarnation is a strange word to our ears. More than that, it is offensive to our reason, that God should become man, and that God and man can be brought together so intimately, that the two are but one Person yet that one Person remains fully God and fully human.

The Incarnation is incomprehensible not because we can never imagine a man becoming a god. Many religions actually claim this. Right from the time of our first parents, we who have been made in the image of God, desire to be “like God,” knowing good and evil. In wanting to be “like God” we set ourselves up as competitors with God. We want to reach up over our heads, to exalt ourselves, to be autonomous of His will, to be gods in our own right. We want to be the centre of things, the object of worship, to assert ourselves over God and climb on the backs of others. There is no humility on our part to acknowledge that we are mere mortals and creatures. There is no inherent desire in us to become servants, nothing in us that would tie the towel around our waist and stoop down to wash feet, to become nothing for the sake of another. We have no trouble pretending and behaving like gods.

But the incomprehensible is that God choses to become like man. What?! But this is what God has done in Jesus Christ. He has reached down to us, to be with us who continually strive to be like Him. He reached down to us and became the least among us. He came without our invitation, without preparation, without our decision, without our welcome. He was sent by the Father, conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary. This is entirely God’s doing, and apart from the Blessed Virgin Mary’s role, we can take no credit for this. Through the Incarnation, God has brought honour to our dishonoured humanity. The ultimate honour that God can bestow, to take up our human nature and become one of us. He didn’t simply take possession of a man, as the devil sometimes does. God dignifies our flesh and blood by wearing it as his own.

Most religions seek to know how we as humans can get in touch with God. Yet Christianity claims that God came to us. God chose to reveal Himself to us, God chose to relate to us, God chose to speak to us, and finally God chose to die for us as a human, the only way in which we could finally comprehend His message for us. That is why Jesus Christ is God’s ultimate revelation. The Jewish Scriptures are clear that no human can see God face-to-face and live. To see God would be tantamount to signing one’s death certificate. But in Jesus Christ, we have seen God. Looking at Jesus equals seeing God. We have not only seen Him and His glory, but have seen Him and lived to tell the story. Our encounter with Him has brought us the gift of eternal life instead of death.

To celebrate Christmas without acknowledging this Truth would be an atrocity. Christmas is not just the Christmas tree, the carolling, the presents, and the ornaments. It is about Lord Jesus Christ, “the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father, through Him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.” As we come to that last article of faith when we recite the Creed after this, the Church invites to kneel. That would not be demanding too much from us considering that the Lord stooped down on Christmas day, the Word leapt down from the heavens, and on the night before He died, knelt down to wash our feet. This is the Incarnation! This is what Christmas is all about. If our celebration of the Christ birth does not reflect these, Christmas becomes a traditional festivity with little substance. Remember, we are what we celebrate. If our celebration therefore is empty of Christ, we are empty of Christ. So, as we gather around the crib to sing our favourite carols, let us never forget that here lies one who is not just a great teacher or prophet, a moral example or leader. He is and always will be the Son of God, yet robed in the flesh, complete in both his divinity and in his humanity. Come let us Adore Him!