Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas is the feast of the incarnation. In Christmas we do celebrate the nativity or birth of Christ, but what we are celebrating is not simply Jesus "birthday," the way we celebrate our own birthdays. We are celebrating the mystery of Emmanuel, God-with-us, God revealed in time and space. Each week in the creed we say "by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man," and the instructions say we are supposed to bow at those words, but on Christmas, the instructions say to genuflect. Why? Because those words proclaim the incarnation, that God became human. So what is the incarnation all about?

St. Athanasius, one of the great fathers and theologians of the Church, tells us:

The Son of God became human so that we might become God.
Obviously we do not become God in the way that God is God, but we become God-like, we are divinized. The eastern Christian tradition has done a much better job of reminding people of this fact than our western tradtion has done, as the west has tended to focus much more on the incarnation as a remedy for sin (it is both). The eastern tradition has a beautiful Greek word, theopoesis or theosis, literally to make divine, to describe this process. The word is usually translated as divinization or deification. We partake in the divine nature. St. Irenaeus puts it another way:

For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.
In the liturgy itself, when the priest pours a bit of water into the wine, he says:
By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbeled himself to share in our humanity.
We do not usually here him say this because he says it in a low voice to himself, but it proclaims the meaning of the incarnation - that God and humanity are united in and through the person of Christ.

Another axiom of our faith tells us that what Christ is by nature, we are by adoption. We cannot understand who Jesus is as Son of God without understanding our own identity and calling as children of God. "Son of God" does not appear in the Bible for the first time in reference to Jesus. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Israel is the Son of God (e.g., see Exodus 4:22-23). Likewise King David is referred to as a Son of God, as are other leaders and prophets. The phrase indicates both intimacy with God and the desire/need for obedience to God, a willingness to do God's will. Jesus is perfectly the Son of God in this way because he is both human and divine, and through our union with him and our sharing in his divinity, we are brought into that relationship with God as well. What he is by nature, we are by adoption. We become children of God, divinized and empowered to do the will of God by that intimate, loving relationship. Christmas is not simply a celebration of who Jesus is; it is a celebration of who we are.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Hope is a lost virtue in our world. The world has become such a cynical place. All too often it seems people have very little hope that the world's biggest problems can actually be solved - war, poverty, illness, etc. A lack of hope then seems to translate itself into apathy and inaction. After all, if we don't really believe things will get better, why expend much effort trying to make things better? And yet, I can't imagine a world more in need of hope, and so I was delighted to see that Pope Benedict's second encyclical of his papacy, Spe Salvi, is on hope. His first encyclical, by the way, was on love (Deus Caritas Est). What better time of year to talk about hope then in Advent, a time of hopeful waiting for the coming of Christ? Pope Benedict notes that hope is supposed to be the mark of a Christian! We should be people of hope in such a way that actually makes people notice that fact about us!

Pope Benedict reminds us that our greatest hope, the hope which enables all others, is our hope of salvation. As Catholics we do not believe that our salvation is "simply a given," but rather
that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present.
We believe and hope in the promise of salvation that comes to us through our union with God in the incarnation, in the person of Jesus Christ. However, as Pope Benedict points out, the encounter with God that engenders our hope cannot simply be "informative" but must also be "performative," in other words, it must change our lives. As one of my professors was fond of saying, God will not save us without our yes. God values our freedom that much. Our yes is not simply a verbal or intellectual yes, but it is an embodied yes, a living out of our faith, and that yes is not complete until the moment of our death. At the same time, that yes is always empowered by God's grace, so we don't have to rely on ourselves, but rather, so long as we are open to God (even unconsciously as in those people who are open to Love, Truth, Goodness, Beauty, etc.), God can effect that yes within us. So while salvation is not a given, we have a hope in salvation that St. Paul assures us will not disappoint (Rom 5:5). The Psalms continuously repeat that our hope is in the Lord. The word hope appears in the Psalms 32 times. St. Paul uses the word 13 times in the Letter to the Romans alone! Pope Benedict points out that frequently in Scripture hope is used interchangeably with faith. In order to have hope, one must believe, one must have faith. Through our faith in God, we will find ourselves being signs of hope in our cynical world. And so in this Advent season:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom 15:3).

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Very rarely do we see realistic painting or statue of Mary in which she is obviously pregnant. One of the few that I have seen in my life, a painting of Mary as a poor, young, pregnant Jewish woman moved me so profoundly that I began searching for a similar image. While I have found several now, my favorite is one that a good friend of mine, who knew of my search, painted for me. That image hangs in my bedroom and is my favorite image of Mary, especially during Advent. Advent is a time when we should focus on the image of Mary as a model for our own faith, and for me, that image is exemplified by her pregnancy.

If you have children, think back to what it was like to be waiting for your first child to be born, or if you do not have children, imagine what it would be like to wait for the birth of your child. I would like to highlight four elements of Mary's experience that give us a model of what it means to be faithful disciples during Advent, because like Mary we are all called to conceive and bear Christ in our lives and in the world.

1. Expectation, anticipation, impatience
Waiting for a child to be born involves expectation and anticipation. There is a certain excitement in the air about this miracle that is about to take place. Do we await Christmas with that same sense of expectation and excitement? Children can teach us a lot about this attitude towards Christmas as well! Having known many relatives and friends who have been pregnant, there is also a certain impatience in that last month of pregnancy. Do we experience that same sense of urgency, of desire for the coming of Christ in the world? We should be a little impatient for the coming of Christmas and for the coming of Christ in our lives and in the world. Children can also teach us a lot about this element of Advent!

2. Preparation – making a space
When a baby is expected, space must be prepared. The woman carrying the child literally makes space in her own body, but space is also made in the home. A nursery is usually prepared. Diapers, bottles, pacifiers, clothes, any number of safety devices, etc., are purchased and set up in preparation for the child's arrival. Advent is a time when we make a space for Christ in our lives, in our hearts, and in our homes.

3. Joy and hope
The birth of a child should bring joy and hope. Have you ever noticed that when people see a baby, they tend to smile? We tend to be filled with joy at seeing a baby. Joy should fill our hearts at the thought of God's love for us made incarnate in Christ. Are we a sign of that joy to others in our lives? When we encounter strangers during the Advent season, do we exude that joyfulness? A baby also represents hope in both the absolute innocence of an infant and the wide open possibilities for the future that lie before that child. Parents immediately have hopes and dreams for their children, often from the very moment they know they are expecting. Advent is a time to think about our hopes and dreams for the world, seeing all of the possibilities the future holds. Advent is a time when we hope and pray for peace on earth.

4. Awe
In addition to smiling at a baby, have you ever noticed how adults will just stand around and watch a baby, absolutely fascinated by this tiny child who is usually just lying there? Have you ever noticed how parents can spend countless minutes just gazing at their sleeping baby? Pregnancy and the birth of a baby are awe inspiring events. Babies inspire a sense of awe within us. The presence of the divine breaking into this world in a tiny baby should literally bring us to our knees. There is a song we sing every Christmas called, "Who Would Send a Baby?" by Mary Kay Beall that always brings tears to my eyes at the way in which God blessed us to give us this experience of Christ as a baby. The words of the song ask,
Who would send a baby to heal a world in pain?
Who would send a baby, a tiny child?
When the world is crying for the promised one, who would send his only son?

Who would send a baby to light the world with love?
Who would send a baby, a tiny child?
When the world is hoping for the promised one, who would send his only son?

Who would choose a manger to cradle a king?
Who would send angels to sing?
Who would make a star in the sky above to shine on the gift of his infinite love?

Who would send a baby to bless the world with peace?
Who would send a baby, a tiny child?
When the world is yearning for the promised one, who would send a baby, who would send his only begotten son?
Do we experience the same sense of expectation, preparation, joy, hope and awe in Advent? Do we carry Christ within in such a way that allows us to be moved and overwhelmed by the mystery of God’s love for us, a love that has us anticipating what happens next in our lives, a love that we make a space for in the busy-ness of our lives, a love that has us flooded by joy and hope, a love that brings us to our knees in awe?