Monday, December 30, 2019

Motherhood, the glory of God

Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God

In an age where so much of modern narrative seems centered around how traditional patriarchal society has robbed women of their rightful place and privilege, the issue of motherhood remains contentious. The debate between pro-life and pro-choice camps can be reduced to a woman’s procreative rights, her right to choose, “to be” or “not to be” a mother. For those who insist on separating their femininity from motherhood, being a mother seems like another form of shackling by a male-dominated society. But for those who come to recognise that all life, even that of a newly conceived baby in the womb, is precious and sacred, then being a mother is the greatest privilege and crown of their womanhood.

Motherhood reflects the glory of God. It is the particularly feminine shape of holiness that women of faith strive for. When Saint Paul says that women are “saved through childbearing” (1 Timothy 2:15), he does not mean that women can earn their salvation by giving birth, but that God is able to save them even as they endure the feminine part of sin’s curse (Genesis 3:16). Childbearing symbolises the creational role of women because motherhood is the clearest example of the difference between men and women.

When God made men and women in His image, He gifted women with a peculiar way to showcase His image. Women, like God, have the gift of generative love. A woman has the ability to love a man in such a way that she can turn it into a human being. Mothers have a kind of incarnational power. In other words, women manifest the glorious love of God through creation, through birth. The unique gift of generation that was given to women is precisely what was damaged at the fall. Now, there is pain in childbearing (Genesis 3:16). The pain of birth tarnishes the gift of motherhood. But the tarnish makes way for a new possibility: redemption. After the fall, women can still generate human life, but they must do so by embracing their curse. Mothers embrace the pain of their fallen nature, they embrace death, and from that death a life is born. In every birth, a mother gives of herself for the sake of her child. So, because of the fall, motherhood not only reflects the generating love of God in creation, but also the regenerating love of Christ on the cross. Mothers embrace the curse so that we may be born, and Christ embraced the curse so that we may be reborn.

If all these things could be said about human motherhood, how much more can we speak of the supreme motherhood? The Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the greatest of all mothers. Motherhood has always been a sacred and noble vocation, but Mary raised it to an even greater stature when she became the Mother of God. It is startling to me that Catholics are perceived as having a negative view of women when Our Lady is so highly honoured. In the Catholic faith, The Blessed Virgin Mary is the most exalted of all Christians. Worship is reserved for the Holy Trinity alone. But Catholics honour and venerate Our Lady above all other saints. Why should we so honour her? God needed a woman to bear His son on earth. God needed a mother to be born a human, for what unites all human beings is that we all have human mothers. Strictly, for our Lord Jesus Christ to be born into this world, there was no need for man. But a woman, a mother was indispensable. And that is why Saint Paul declares, “God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4). So the Virgin Mary did not save the day in spite of being a woman, she conquers, she brought our Saviour into this world, precisely because she was a woman, something no man could do.

So today the Church celebrates the supreme motherhood, the Divine motherhood of Mary, whom the Eastern Christians call “Theotokos”, the God-bearer, or “the one who gave birth to God.” This only serves to impress on us that the noblest title accorded to Mary is essentially Christological. The belief that the Virgin Mary is the Mother of God is the corollary of the belief that her son, Jesus Christ, is God Incarnate. It is a shorthand that expresses two truths:  that Christ is God and yet took on human nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The Word of God, who is God Himself, through whom all things were created, became a part of His own creation when He was conceived, gestated and born of the Virgin Mary. The Word of God is simultaneously the man Jesus of Nazareth because He has a human mother. This is in essence the central tenet of the Christian faith – the dogma of the Incarnation. So, if you take away the human mother from this equation, this entire doctrine falls apart and with it the entire Christian faith. Just like the whole house would fall apart without the mother.

The dogma that Mary is the Theotokos, or God-bearer, contributes to a celebration and exaltation of womanhood. By emphasising that Our Lady is the Mother of God, the Church not only maintains a high Christology (highlighting that Christ was always divine), but also makes the shocking assertion that God Himself chose to dwell in a woman’s body as His abode for nine months. She was, as Saint Cyril of Alexandria who successfully defended this noble title at the Council of Ephesus, the “container of the Uncontainable.” Perhaps even more scandalous, is the emphasis the Church Fathers place on Christ being born “of Mary,” not merely “from Mary.” By this they meant that God allowed His very body to be formed from Mary’s womb.

In his 1995 Letter to Women, Saint John Paul II says that the Catholic Church “sees in Mary the highest expression of the ‘feminine genius’ and she finds in her a source of constant inspiration.” As the mother who is “blessed among women” (Lk 1:42), Mary gives us the clearest and most inspiring picture of what the ideal mother should look like, and every Christian mother would be wise to take her cues from her. Rather than to see her conception and pregnancy as a curse and a burden, one that risked condemning her to humiliation, rejection and even death, Mary accepted it for what it is – the greatest blessing from God. She of all persons knew that her femininity was not diminished nor compromised by becoming a mother, but rather it was augmented and brought to perfection in her motherhood.

And finally Mary shows all women, all mothers, that the highest calling is not motherhood. The highest calling is to know God, to love Him and serve Him and be with Him in Paradise forever. Mothers are called to showcase to all people how they should act towards God. Her vocation is to work for the salvation of her family members and all souls. Through this vocation, she reverses the damage done by Eve. When Eve refused to submit to God in the garden, all the world fell into chaos. The Virgin Mary, on the other hand, willingly submitted to God, and the whole world was saved through the seed planted in her. Every mother in their submission to God tells the gospel story.

So today, as we honour the Blessed Virgin Mary as Mother of God, as the Holy Theotokos, we honour all mothers and all women too. This is exactly what Bishop Proclus of Constantinople said in a fifth century homily, “What we celebrate is the pride of women and the glory of the female, thanks to the one who was at once both mother and virgin … let nature leap for joy, and let women be honoured! Let all humanity dance, and let virgins be glorified… Let women come running, because a woman … is giving birth to the fruit of life. Let virgins also come running because a virgin has given birth … let mothers come running, because by means of the Tree of Life a virgin mother, has set right the tree of disobedience. Let daughters also come running, because a daughter’s obedience has punished a mother’s disobedience.”

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Tried, tested and proven in Crisis

Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

It’s tough coming to church on a Sunday when you have a family. Waking up the kids when they want to sleep in, getting them dressed and fed, making sure you don’t lose your cool in the process. Or you’ve just gotten into an argument the night before with your spouse and you can’t picture yourself sitting in the same car with the person and lasting the entire ride to church without speaking a word. It’s tough enough having a family in modern times; Church doesn’t seem to make it easier. We want peace in our homes; we want to be holy families. But how can we get there if we can’t even get into our cars to drive to church without fighting over something or another? To compound matters, what the Church offers to us as a model seems impossible to imitate. Have we not forgotten that the members of the Holy Family are a tough act to follow: we have Saint Joseph, the saint; the Blessed Virgin Mary who is immaculately conceived; and of course, Jesus, who is the Son of God, God incarnate. Are we crazy to think that we can emulate them? Yet, Pope Saint John Paul II thinks we can: “The Holy Family is the beginning of countless other holy families.”

So how is the Holy Family the beginning of other holy families? What can we learn from this family? We are still in the Christmas mood and it’s easy to get wrapped up in the peace that permeates the Nativity of our Lord, but it’s important for us to remember that very soon after the birth of our Saviour in the manger in Bethlehem, the Holy Family’s life turned topsy-turvy again. The peace and stillness of the stable 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. Already homeless in Bethlehem, they now become refugees.

Perhaps one of the most striking messages of the story of Christmas then, is that family life doesn’t always run smoothly, faithfully following some perfect blueprint, even for this most special of families. Family life is tough. Family life is messy. And the Holy Family’s life was no exception. Right from the very beginning, there is struggle, hardship, and the need for extraordinary courage and endurance in the face of these difficulties. Many of us complain of impossible and painful challenges in our own families but how many of us can truly claim that we have faced the same kind of difficulties the Holy Family had experienced?

If we are to think of the Holy Family as any kind of model for family life, I would like to suggest that it is not to be found in the familiar picture-perfect portrait of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph standing in front of the manger but rather in stories that speak of crises. It is only during a crisis that the mettle of parenthood is tried, tested and proven. The Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph are model parents because of their fidelity to their vocation as parents to the new born child as well as to each other, a fidelity that was not compromised even during crises. They would have possessed the human virtues of courage, perseverance and patience. But more importantly, they were persons of faith who willingly and obediently cooperated with God’s grace. That is why we call them the “Holy Family” and not just the “perfect family.” When we turn to the Gospel we find a holy family, not a very normal one. The mother is a virgin and the father is not the biological father of the child. And they are not living in some ideal family setting but rather being hounded by a megalomaniac king. But this is the family God had chosen, the one whose care He had chosen to entrust His Son to.

Holiness is not about “keeping up appearances,” about giving the impression that all is well on the outside but hides the truth of rot festering on the inside. We all know too well that families can go horribly wrong and be anything but holy. It isn’t about feeling happy and having rosy memories. It is about love — the kind of love that is willing to suffer or die for the beloved. Saint Paul tells us that a family becomes holy in the same way as the community at Colossi becomes holy: through the working of the Holy Spirit. He emphasised the reciprocity of love: “bear with one another; forgive each other… Over all these clothes, to keep them together and complete them, put on love.” Love alone is the cord that holds the family together through all crises. And this takes place not merely on the human level, but also on a spiritual level as Saint Paul tells us, “never say or do anything except in the name of the Lord Jesus.” It is as though they have been clothed after baptism with the transforming virtues like compassion, humility, patience, gentleness and then everything is held together in unity by a belt which is Christ's love. Husband, wife, father, mother, children are all now ‘in Christ’ and that determines all the different relationships that make up their family life.

One wonders whether Saint Paul could have pointed to some perfect family in his congregation. Probably he would not have found one. No family is perfect, and no parents will be able to be as perfectly selfless as Mary and Joseph and no child would be as divinely innocent and obedient as Our Lord Jesus Christ. But every family is capable of love. Every family is capable of growing in faith. And for this, every family can emulate the life of the Holy Family.

Take Saint Joseph for example. Mary is often the focus of the Christmas story. But the lectionary has chosen for this year, Saint Joseph, as the model of parenthood. The example he gives is so contrary to the prevalent model of fatherhood in our modern society. Many families today suffer from the absent father. One can say that the crisis we see in families is largely due to the crisis of fatherhood, which is a crisis of manhood. But Saint Joseph gives us an example of manly courage, manly endurance and manly strength in the selfless service of others. He was the husband and father in the Holy Family, provider of food for the table, protector of the mother and child, mentor and teacher of his divine foster-son from childhood into manhood. Multiple times he received messages from God, and he obeyed. Rather than shirking his responsibility and pushing it to Mary, Saint Joseph assumed his vocation with great faith and courage. Pope Francis tells us, “faith sustained him amid the troubles of life.” The road to holiness requires constant discernment, listening for God’s voice, and a willingness to obey.

One could say the Holy Family was like a seminary. The word seminary means “seedbed.” In this regard, the family is the original seminary, where the seed of faith is first planted, nurtured, and eventually germinates. Little by little, couples can encourage each other in their journey to sainthood, families have the power to nurture faith in their children and lead them towards Christ. A holy family life, based on the foundation of fidelity, love and faith, can be a powerful means of evangelising and sanctifying our culture.

We can learn in the example of the Holy Family that, despite all our failures and difficulties, we too are called to become holy through living out God's word in the midst of our families. The Holy Family is holy because it is responsive to the demanding word of God spoken in the very trying circumstances of their daily lives. In an ordinary family, the members of the family may get frustrated with each other. They may occasionally argue. But ultimately, the members are called to love each other, support each other and forgive each other. They may not do it perfectly, but they will try to be holy. When they fail, Christ and the Church offers them the grace through the Sacraments to do better. What about your family? Despite your failures and imperfections, there is hope that your family can be like the Holy Family. Regardless of your family’s situation, there is hope for you. You are called to holiness. Holiness will look very different from one family to another. But the most powerful thing you can do is to daily entrust the health, healing, and holiness of your family to God.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

A Word that creates, saves and judges

Christmas Mass during the day

Remember the old adage, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me”. It’s a standard response to an insult, implying that “You might be able to hurt me by physical force and violence but not by insults.” It implies, that “words”, at least hurtful words, have no power over us. But the truth is that, this is a lie. Anyone who says that doesn’t understand the power of words. Words can cut deeper than any knife, hit harder than any fist, touch parts of you that nothing physical will ever reach, and the wounds that some words leave never heal, they bleed afresh whenever we remember those words. Yes, “sticks and stones may break my bones”, but let’s be honest, words do hurt me.

If there is power in words to destroy, to tear down, to hurt and break, what about the power of words to restore, build up, and to heal? Such power of words, like its evil counterpart, should never be underestimated. In fact, as our Christmas gospel today proclaims, it took only One Word to create the world, One Word to save it, and One Word to judge us all.

If you had attended the Mass during the night, you would have heard the story of Christmas, the birth of Our Lord and Saviour in Bethlehem, taken from the Gospel of Saint Luke. But this morning, the gospel reading comes from the Fourth Gospel, Saint John’s gospel. Now unlike the gospels of Saint Matthew and Saint Luke, John’s gospel does not have an infancy narrative. What John does here is quite simply profound. While Matthew and Luke trace their accounts of Jesus back to Joseph and Mary then to the patriarchs, John traces Jesus all the way back, to before God created anything. He does this in order to show us that the Son of God existed before even creation existed. So, in place of an infancy narrative, Saint John gives us a prologue which speaks of the “Word”. There is no mention of angels or shepherds or a manger or even the Holy Family but describes Christmas in this short, simple but deeply profound verse, “The Word was made flesh, He lived among us, and we saw His glory.” This is at the heart of the Incarnation – the enfleshing of God. If the infancy narratives in the other gospels speak of what happened; the Incarnation tells us what it means.

Yes, “the Word was made flesh.” Word is a good name for the Son of God for many reasons. Jewish people used “Word” (dabar) as a name for God and God's action. To call Jesus “Word” then, was to say He was God. To the Jewish people words make things happen. They do things. In Scripture, God says that just as the rain and snow bring forth plants, “so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). Jesus the Word was God's active, dynamic power.

The “Word” or in Greek, “Logos”, had already been employed by Greek philosophers before its introduction in the Fourth Gospel. In Greek thought, the word ‘logos’ had diverse meanings. On the one hand, it contained the idea of reason, but also that of discourse’, the spoken word. The first to develop a definite philosophy of the Logos was Heraclitus (550-480 B.C.). He spoke of the Logos as a universal mind, responsible for the harmony and order of the world, a mind which permeated everything but which most people were unaware of or did not understand. Plato (427-347 B.C.) principally used the concept of Logos according to its meaning of “discourse” and “reason,” though assigning to it a character of transcendence. But beginning with the Stoic philosophers (from the 3rd century onwards), a more sophisticated doctrine of the Logos emerged. The Logos took on characteristics of a divine, spiritual principle. It is prefaced by the adjective “divine” and at times substituted by the name “God.”

Finally, it was in the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.-50 A.D.) that two different worlds converge: the theological elements gathered from the Old Testament, especially from the Books of Wisdom and Proverbs, and the teachings of Neo-Platonic philosophy. According to this understanding, Wisdom intervened in the formation of a world it did not create, but of which it was a mediator. It had the task of leading human beings to God and of revealing the plan of salvation. This finally prepared the foundation for Saint John’s powerful and theologically deep exposition of the Word of God.

One can safely say that Saint John’s treatment of the Logos is unique and original. His Logos is not just a rational concept, a personification of logic, or mere discursive speech. His Logos is not trapped in the world of ideas nor even a subordinate mediator of God’s creative power and revelation. No. Saint John makes several important claims about his Logos right from the very start: “In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God…” The evangelist, using an opening line that draws us back to the first book of the Bible, to the beginning of creation, in fact to the time before creation, makes this powerful and audacious claim. This Word was already existing at “the beginning” and He was not only “with God” but He is God Himself. Yes, the Word is Eternal, the Word is distinct from the God who begot Him but the Word is also God. In just this one opening line, Saint John plunges with us into the ocean depths of mystery and profundity of the Most Holy Trinity.

Saint John explicitly affirms the role played by the Logos in the creation of the world: “Through Him all things came to be, not one thing had its being but through him …” He is the Maker of Heaven and Earth, of all things seen and unseen. The Word also possesses the divine attributes of life, holiness, and light. He possesses the fullness of grace, of truth and of glory. But the most shocking statement is to follow, a statement that would challenge every Greek philosopher who viewed the world of matter as inferior or illusory, whilst the spiritual realm of ideas or the Logos as superior. For Saint John, His Logos was not an aloof concept. His very mission was to be sent into the world, because “this” Logos “was made flesh and lived among us” (v. 14). The Logos Saint John was describing was not the impersonal force of the Greeks, but a true person, one with God and yet capable of walking as a man among men. He’s not just a brilliant idea or an inspiring word. He was with God in the beginning and in fact He is God – the Transcendent God. But John’s Logos also possesses all the concreteness of what is visible and capable of suffering, as He “was made flesh.” Saint John presents the Logos as He who is truly accessible, He who John’s own eyes have seen and his hands have touched (1Jn 1:1), and He who is, at the same time, the one and same heavenly Logos, the eschatological judge at the centre of the apocalyptic vision of the final battle (cf. Apoc 19:13).

So, as we gather to celebrate Christmas, the birth of Jesus, we must never fail to forget that we are celebrating the birth of the Word that “was made flesh.” For all eternity going backward and for all eternity moving forward, Jesus, the Son of God, has always been with God and has always been God. The Word was God at the time the beginning began. There has never been a time when the Word of God was not God. A Christmas without acknowledging this central truth, is a Christmas shorn of its very essence and meaning. Today, I appeal to you to not just listen to my words. My words have no power on their own. They do not inspire. They do not excite. They can’t possibly give life. No, today, God presents to all of us the power of the Word. The One Word who created the world, the One Word who saves it and the One Word who will come again to judge the living and the dead. This Word “was made flesh and lived among us, and we saw His glory.” This Word has a name, it is “Jesus”!