Friday, December 21, 2012

Season of Matter

The essence of modern materialism… consists in the way in which the relationship between matter and spirit is conceived. Here, matter is the first and original element; it is matter, not the Logos, that stands at the beginning. Everything develops out of matter in a process of contingencies that becomes a process of necessities. Spirit is never more than the product of matter. If one knows the laws of matter and can manipulate them, then one can also change the course of the spirit.

A Turning Point for Europe?, 83-4

Reflection – Well, it is the season of matter, isn’t it? Christmas time, shortly, and hence the great feast of the Incarnation. God becoming flesh; God, pure spirit, assuming to himself matter, taking a body from the flesh of Mary to carry our human flesh to the very heart of the godhead in his suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension.

But at Christmas we contemplate the baby, this little creature of flesh lying in the straw, warmed by the animals because he can be cold now, fed by his mother’s breasts because he can be hungry now, soon to be fleeing with Mary and Joseph to Egypt because he can be killed now.

This rather dry (perhaps) philosophical reflection from Ratzinger directly relates to the Christmas mystery, this central dogma of the Incarnation, God become flesh. Matter without spirit, a strictly material universe, is locked wholly into a series of laws and rigid patterns of motion and rest. Even if those laws are complex in their interactions, and so we have things like chaos theory which means we cannot predict the movements of bodies in complex systems accurately, nonetheless matter is entirely constrained by unbreakable laws. You canna’ defy the laws of physics, Captain!

It is only spirit, and Spirit, that brings freedom into the material picture. It is only a person who can make a free decision for or against a course of action. The stars in their courses and the atoms in their vibrations are set, determined.

And it is materialism that more and more yields determinism of various kinds. We are controlled by our genes… or by our environments… or by our brain chemistry. Personal identity is more and more determined by factors outside our choice and control, like sexual orientation or race, and those things we have chosen for ourselves, like our religion, are more and more marginalized as significant considerations for our choices or meaningful human rights to be respected.

The Incarnation—the Spirit overshadowing the flesh of Mary, the very Logos of God becoming flesh in her womb, the very life of God embracing and transforming the whole material universe in this mystery—this is the permanent Christian answer to materialism and determinism. God, in a sense, became man so that man could be liberated eternally from the determinations of matter.

Not so that we become free from matter itself—the resurrection of the body means that we will be physical material creatures for eternity. But we are free from matter’s limits, its exigencies, its finite mortality, its locked-in-to-itself quality. Because of what God did to matter in Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem, all of matter is made into a vehicle of God’s grace and God’s life.

All the material universe is made into a vessel for love and communion. It was made to be so from the beginning, but sin and failure frustrated this divine plan. Christ opens the door again, and the divine presence, mercy, love, grace flows forth from his risen body into the life of the Church and its sacraments, and through the Church into the whole cosmos.
Well, that is our answer to materialism: O come let us adore him. God became matter, and so matter is permanently disposed to receive the life of God. And this is the true meaning of Christmas.

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