Friday, December 30, 2011

Stop and Stare

The reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to Titus that we have just heard begins solemnly with the word apparuit, which then comes back again in the reading at the Dawn Mass: apparuit – there has appeared.
This is a programmatic word, by which the Church seeks to express synthetically the essence of Christmas. Formerly, people had spoken of God and formed human images of him in all sorts of different ways. God himself had spoken in many and various ways to mankind (cf. Heb 1:1 – Mass during the Day). But now something new has happened: he has appeared. He has revealed himself. He has emerged from the inaccessible light in which he dwells. He himself has come into our midst. This was the great joy of Christmas for the early Church: God has appeared. No longer is he merely an idea, no longer do we have to form a picture of him on the basis of mere words. He has appeared. But now we ask: how has he appeared? Who is he in reality? The reading at the Dawn Mass goes on to say: ‘the kindness and love of God our Saviour for mankind were revealed’ (Tit 3:4). For the people of pre-Christian times, whose response to the terrors and contradictions of the world was to fear that God himself might not be good either, that he too might well be cruel and arbitrary, this was a real epiphany, the great light that has appeared to us: God is pure goodness. Today too, people who are no longer able to recognize God through faith are asking whether the ultimate power that underpins and sustains the world is truly good, or whether evil is just as powerful and primordial as the good and the beautiful which we encounter in radiant moments in our world. The kindness and love of God our Saviour for mankind were revealed: this is the new, consoling certainty that is granted to us at Christmas.

Homily, Midnight Mass, December 25, 2011

Reflection – God really is mysterious, isn’t He? I see this more and more clearly as life goes on. So many things happen, both in the world at large and in our own personal lives, that make the whole business of God, and hence Meaning, Truth, Goodness… well, very mysterious, to say the least.
It’s not a question of constantly having crises of faith, of being beset by doubts and constantly risking a lapse into atheistic nihilism. In some ways, that’s a cheap path out of the mysteriousness of life. After all, to simply throw up one’s hands and say, ‘well, there is no God then, and hence no real Meaning to it all!’ is one way to ‘solve’ the problem. There is no solution.
Or we can just not think too hard about it, not pay too close attention to it all. This is easier to do when one’s own immediate life is going all right; not so easy to do when sorrow and distress bust through your front door and stage a home invasion of you and yours. For many who choose the path of superficiality and unthinking, this is when faith fails.
It is really mysterious. As the Pope so beautifully reflects, and will continue to reflect in this homily, the mystery is not so much solved as deepened and made into a mystery of beauty, a luminous mystery, by this baby, this child, this strange Jesus who presents himself to us in this feast.
God has appeared—and his appearance makes the whole business of life, the world, pain and evil, sorrow and darkness, love and loss more mysterious. But a mystery in which we can find hope. We stare and stare at the little baby in the crib, in the manger, and something happens to us. We start to know that God is with us.
We still don’t know much. We don’t really know ‘what’ God is, or how his goodness and light are making their way through our lives and the life of the world. But we stare and stare at the baby, and we come to believe that He is here, anyhow. We are not alone, anyhow. And something is happening—slowly, strangely, in a fashion hard to see, hard to discern, but it is happening. Love grows, as we stop and stare at this strange appearance of God in our midst. Love grows, and with love, peace, joy, hope, and trust that as we stay with Him and keep staring, He will finally make all things well and gather all creation to Himself.
“Look towards Him and be radiant.”

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Lengthy Way

Jesus Christ is the proof that God has heard our cry. And not only this! God's love for us is so strong that he cannot remain aloof; he comes out of himself to enter into our midst and to share fully in our human condition (cf. Ex 3:7-12). The answer to our cry which God gave in Jesus infinitely transcends our expectations, achieving a solidarity which cannot be human alone, but divine. Only the God who is love, and the love which is God, could choose to save us in this way, which is certainly the lengthiest way, yet the way which respects the truth about him and about us: the way of reconciliation, dialogue and cooperation.
Dear brothers and sisters in Rome and throughout the world, on this Christmas 2011, let us then turn to the Child of Bethlehem, to the Son of the Virgin Mary, and say: "Come to save us!" Let us repeat these words in spiritual union with the many people who experience particularly difficult situations; let us speak out for those who have no voice.
Urbi et orbi  message, December 25, 2011
Reflection – The Pope went on in this address to mention the nations and peoples of the world suffering especially in this time—the litany of trouble spots that is all too familiar to those who follow the news closely.
When we contemplate the world as it is, with all its war and hunger, disease and oppression, and when we contemplate the sufferings that may come more close to ourselves personally and those we love—illness and death, marital breakdown and financial worries—the temptation is always there to at the very least question God’s care and presence, perhaps even his reality.
For many today, it is more than a temptation—the suffering and ugliness of the world seems to make faith difficult to the point of impossibility. To us who have faith, and to those whose faith may be shaky, the Pope calls us to contemplate this mysterious baby in the manger, this mysterious coming of God into the world, not as a mighty warrior to put all the armies to flight, not as an all-powerful king to take command and dispense perfect justice, not as an all-encompassing wonder worker taking all our afflictions away, but as a baby.
‘The lengthiest way’ of salvation – what a nice turn of phrase that is. God chooses to save us by entering into our woes with us, not by taking our woes away. There is such a deep reality at play and at stake here.
What is our central illness, our central affliction, the passion that drives all passions, the poison that blights everything it touches? It is that we want something other than God, or want something in preference to God, or in place of God. This is how wars start, how poverty and oppression thrive, how relationships are fractured, and how even our bodies are damaged and so break down and perish. The poison is universal; it is in all of us, and so all of us share in its effects.
So God comes to us—and we see in this Christmas mystery He offers us nothing but Himself. If He had come in might and power immediately, solving all our problems and curing all our ailments, he would have, in fact, solved nothing and cured nothing. We poor benighted human beings would have simply welcomed all the gifts and blessings He was giving us… and turned our backs on Him, as we do.
God made us so that we will never be truly well, never truly happy, never truly free, until we love Him, turn towards Him, seek Him, worship Him. This is the order of all created reality, and we are His creatures. He is our happiness, our health, our freedom, our joy, our peace.
And so He embarks on the lengthiest path of salvation, but the one ‘which respects the truth about him and about us’. And He remains so present in each of our lives, helping us, yes, healing us, yes, in so many mysterious and often hidden ways. But always, in His presence, His help, and His healing, drawing us to the deep healing, which is to love Him and seek Him and follow Him with all our hearts.
How does this play out on the world stage, in Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, North Korea, and in the myriad personal tragedies each of us is bitterly acquainted with in our families and loved ones? I don’t know.
But I know the truth of what I have written above in my own life. I also know that I am nothing special, just another sinner in need of mercy and salvation. So I know that God must be doing for each human being what He is doing for me, or at least wanting to.
This is the deal God offers us, though, to enter and share our human condition Himself, and in that to transform it from within, to make it a sharing in the mystery of love and grace. And each of us must decide if this is true, this Christmas present, this gift of God to us.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Is You Is or Is You Ain't?

Christ is born for us! Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to the men and women whom he loves. May all people hear an echo of the message of Bethlehem which the Catholic Church repeats in every continent, beyond the confines of every nation, language and culture. The Son of the Virgin Mary is born for everyone; he is the Saviour of all.
This is how Christ is invoked in an ancient liturgical antiphon: "O Emmanuel, our king and lawgiver, hope and salvation of the peoples: come to save us, O Lord our God". Veni ad salvandum nos! Come to save us!..
This is the meaning of the Child's name, the name which, by God's will, Mary and Joseph gave him: he is named Jesus, which means "Saviour" (cf. Mt ; Lk ). He was sent by God the Father to save us above all from the evil deeply rooted in man and in history: the evil of separation from God, the prideful presumption of being self-sufficient, of trying to compete with God and to take his place, to decide what is good and evil, to be the master of life and death (cf. Gen 3:1-7). This is the great evil, the great sin, from which we human beings cannot save ourselves unless we rely on God's help, unless we cry out to him: "Veni ad salvandum nos! – Come to save us!"
The very fact that we cry to heaven in this way already sets us aright; it makes us true to ourselves: we are in fact those who cried out to God and were saved (cf. Esth [LXX] 10:3ff.). God is the Saviour; we are those who are in peril. He is the physician; we are the infirm. To realize this is the first step towards salvation, towards emerging from the maze in which we have been locked by our pride. To lift our eyes to heaven, to stretch out our hands and call for help is our means of escape, provided that there is Someone who hears us and can come to our assistance.
Urbi et orbi address, December 25, 2011
Reflection – Now, just so everyone is clear, you all know that Christmas is not over, right? Christmas starts, not ends, on December 25, and extends to Epiphany (in Canada this year on January 8). One of the true benefits of living in Madonna House away from the secular culture more or less is that we are insulated from the modern notion that Christmas (meaning the shopping season) starts somewhere around Hallowe’en and ends on Christmas Day, by which time everyone is heartily sick of the whole business.
No – we have just completed Advent, and now are basking in the glow of the stable at Bethlehem, and so this blog, written from Madonna House, will be reflecting on the Christmas mystery and the Pope’s 2011 reflections on same.
Here we see one of his constant themes applied to this mystery: that in Christ the true healing, the deepest salvation we receive is being delivered from our self-sufficiency, our deadly egoism, our tragedy of being locked into our own self, the futile effort to be the source and summit of our own existence.
To know our need for salvation is, in itself, salvific for us… provided (of course) that there is Someone to save us, as Pope Benedict so ably points out. And that always is the question, isn’t it? So many of our other questions—all the hows and whys and whats of life, resolve around this: is God with us, or not?
The old song asked the question ‘is you is or is you ain’t my baby?’ We ask Jesus the question ‘is you is or is you ain’t my savior?’ And do we need the salvation He offers? This is the pressing question, I believe, for many. So many in the world today seem to be unaware of their need for salvation. I’m doing just fine, they say. I don’t need God. ‘Jesus is for poor people, Christianity is for losers,’ is the common attitude.
It seems to me that one of the pre-evangelization needs in the world today is to bring people to know their own need for salvation. In other words, you are a loser. You are a poor person. If you don’t know this, you are lost in delusion, building your life on sand, trapped in this maze of self the Pope speaks of.
People are very afraid to confront their own poverty, and hide from it behind a whole series of subterfuges and distractions. So much flight into drinking and drugging and vacuous entertainment culture is based on this. Let’s just think about something else, or not think at all.
But we have a savior. We are not alone. God is with us—Emmanuel. We have nothing to be afraid of. This is the constant message of Christmas, the constant hope held out for us by the baby in the manger, the man on the cross, the God who is made manifest in Jesus Christ.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Vacation

Christmas is a time for family, for festivity, for frolic, and for worship, as I wrote yesterday.
It is not a time to be staring at a computer screen… so this blog is going on Christmas vacation, starting now. I will probably check in a few times between Christmas and New Year’s, and resume regular blogging in January 2012.
May every good gift from above and every blessing of God be upon you and yours as we gather around the manger to worship the baby who brought us eternal life and bliss. Merry Christmas, and a happy new year to you all.

Friday, December 23, 2011

It is Merry, and It is Christmas

Mary, saying Yes to the birth of the Son of God from her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit, places her body, her entire self, at God’s disposal as a place for his presence.

Mary, the Church at the Source, 49
Reflection – There is a mysterious reality of Christmas captured in this quote from Ratzinger. Christmas is such a very festive time, with all that makes up the reality ‘festivity’ for us: food and drink, friends and family, gifts and parties… and maybe, just maybe, the occasional church service!
But at the core of this merry jovial and hopefully fun time is this deep mystery. The mother. The child. God taking flesh. A womb, and what issues forth from it: God, salvation, eternal life.
And this mystery of Mary’s freely participating in this, her free consent, her fiat. And this is where and how God becomes present.
And out of this flows, then, song and dance, wassails and eggnog, tinsel and tarts.
The two must be held together: depth of mystery exploding in silence and beauty from the heart of God, the womb of Mary, the manger surrounded by stars and angels and wonderment; silliness and nonsense and excess and laughter, laughter, laughter.
Without the mystery, the silliness and excess degrades into a mere bacchanal. Without the frolic, the mystery becomes something beyond us, something we poor little humans cannot quite get to.
Merry Christmas. It is merry, and it is Christ’s Mass. It is a time for turkey and stuffing and good wine and song and laughter; it is the self-offering of the God-man, in humility on the straw.
And this becomes our mystery. We can be joyful, laughing, singing, full of jokes and nonsense… and daily lay down our lives for God and one another. And God is present, in that place.
Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Truth is a Child

Christian faith lives on the discovery that not only is there such a thing as objective meaning, but this meaning knows me and loves me, I can entrust myself to it like that child that knows all its questions answered in the ‘You’ of its mother.
Introduction to Christianity, 48
Reflection – As Christmas draws near we can all easily contemplate the image of ‘mother and child’ Ratzinger references here. It is indeed the feast of Christmas when we see most clearly that not only is God real, not only is there an Ultimate Reality that is behind everything, but that this reality ‘knows me and loves me’.
‘Truth is a child,’ wrote Catherine Doherty in one of her Christmas-centered poems. Truth is a child; God made himself a baby, a child, a helpless creature, for love of us. God put himself into our hands so that we could do with him what we will. Herod tried to kill him; Pontius Pilate succeeded a few years later.
‘Truth is a child, bread and wine,’ is the full first line of the poem. This ‘helpless God’ we behold in the manger in our crèche scenes and carols comes to us in fleshly reality at every Mass.
“Truth is a child, bread and wine/Truth is fed by the breasts of Mary/Truth is cradled by the hands of Mary/Truth is helpless as only a child can be/Truth is helpless only as bread and wine can helpless be/The keynote of Truth is helplessness.”
So runs the first stanza of this remarkable poem. It is an unfathomable mystery of God that He makes Himself so for us. For God is not helpless – He plays with the stars and the galaxies, and holds every quark and quanta in its place – but this God perpetually presents Himself to us as a beggar, as a poor man, as a helpless baby, as bread and wine. We can receive Him in faith and love, or cast Him on the ground and tread Him underfoot.
There’s something very deep going on here about the mystery of love, the mystery of generosity, of mercy. And because it is about those things, all this ‘helplessness’ business has to be reflected in our own lives somehow.
“Unless [truth] becomes as helpless as a child/Or piece of bread that is lifted up, or cup of wine/It will not be the perfect love that I am./When you have become as utterly helpless/As I became for love’s sake/Then you will be like I Myself.”
It all comes back to this child entrusting himself to his mother. To knowing that objective reality, ultimate reality ‘knows me and loves me.’ So I can abandon myself to Him who so abandoned Himself to me, allow myself to be borne along by His will in my life, gobbled up by the demands of love, cast aside by the heedless or loveless, disregarded and forgotten, or drowned in a sea of obligations and hard labor.
Bread and wine. A child. A Christian. Such is the truth of our faith. Such is the quality of perfect love. And in Christmas, beholding the beauty of the manger, the mother, the child, such is the renewal of our hope that in this faith and love, we enter a realm of light and joy, smelling of straw and animals, but filled with the sound of angels’ wings and song.
See you there.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

We Must Celebrate

Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is an “undoing” of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright. For this reason, faith in the Last Judgment is first and foremost hope—the need for which was made abundantly clear in the upheavals of recent centuries. I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favor of faith in eternal life. The purely individual need for a fulfillment that is denied to us in this life, for an everlasting love that we await, is certainly an important motive for believing that man was made for eternity; but only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ's return and for new life become fully convincing.

Spe Salvi 43
Reflection – It’s always good, as we get ready to celebrate the Christmas feast on Sunday, that our looking back to the coming of the Christ child in Bethlehem 2000 years ago is also a looking forward to the final coming of Christ in glory.
Catherine Doherty found Christmas a painful time of year, often, precisely because of what the Pope is talking about here. The joy, the beauty, the promise of peace and love—all that we rightly associate with the child of Christmas—for her was sharply contrasted with children being bombed in Vietnam, starving in Biafra, shivering in the cold of the inner cities of America.
It is painful. The world goes its own way, ‘silent night’ notwithstanding. People are cruel to each other, and the poorest are the ones who inevitably pay the highest price of this cruelty. In Catherine’s day it was Vietnam, Cambodia, Northern Ireland. Today we look to Egypt, Syria, North Korea, Somalia. So many victims, so much suffering.
So if our Christmas feast does not in some fashion look to these suffering ones, there is something a bit unreal about it. Certainly this means that Christmas is a time for charity as well as (if not more than) consumption; but it also means Christmas is a time when, as we look to this Baby in the manger, so beautiful, so peaceful, we cry out to Him for all these other babies who are robbed of their peace—the ones torn to bits in the womb, the ones born into situations of desperation and great evil.
We cry for Him to come and complete the work He has begun. We do believe he has begun this work; we long for Him to come and finish it. It is this sense of incompletion, of a job not yet finished, of a world yet to be transformed by love and grace, that spurs us on both to actions of love and mercy, and to ceaseless prayer.
And in the midst of all this, we can celebrate, you know! We can eat turkey and sing carols and frolic as we wish. We must celebrate, or else the darkness will overcome the light in us, and that would be tragic.
And we can celebrate, because He came, you know. And because He came, no child, no baby anywhere in the world is truly left alone. He came for them, for us, for you, for me. And nothing is the same because He came, not really, not forever. And so, even in the dark and cold of the world as it is, we light candles and decorate our homes and laugh together at the feast.
Christ is born, and the world begins to be reborn in Him. This is joy, and this is hope.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

For Now

Christians likewise can and must constantly learn from the strict rejection of images that is contained in God's first commandment (cf. Ex 20:4). The truth of negative theology was highlighted by the Fourth Lateran Council, which explicitly stated that however great the similarity that may be established between Creator and creature, the dissimilarity between them is always greater. [However] God has given himself an “image”: in Christ who was made man. In him who was crucified, the denial of false images of God is taken to an extreme. God now reveals his true face in the figure of the sufferer who shares man's God-forsaken condition by taking it upon himself. This innocent sufferer has attained the certitude of hope: there is a God, and God can create justice in a way that we cannot conceive, yet we can begin to grasp it through faith.
Spe Salvi 43
Reflection – One of the true markers of greatness in a thinker or a human being is the capacity to recognize and freely embrace that which is true in the positions of one’s opponents. And as everyone has some little bit of truth somewhere in their thought (it is psychologically impossible to be wrong about everything), this gives the great thinker the ability to agree with and affirm everyone… while still advancing his or her own argument.
Pope Benedict is a great thinker. Here, he gladly affirms the element of truth in the iconoclast heresy of the eighth century, that heresy which denied any use of imagery whatsoever to depict God. The Pope here points out that the iconoclasts were concerned rightly to preserve the mystery of God, His supreme unlikeness to anything material or visible, His transcending of all categories of time and space, extension and hence depiction.
Affirming the truth of this, the Pope then says, essentially, “Yes, but…” And this ‘but’ is what we are all gearing up to celebrate this coming weekend. God made an image for Himself. God the invisible made Himself visible. God the utterly transcendent, the immense one, made Himself very small. God the All-powerful, the All-mighty, the All-knowing and All-judging one, made Himself very weak, very poor, very helpless.
A baby on a bed of straw. A naked man on a Cross. This is the face of God.
And this is, then, hope. There is so much about the world we do not understand. So much about the world that seems just wrong to us. It seems unjust; God seems unjust to many. No need to rehearse all that here.
But then we have the ultimate revelation of God, and it’s as if He says in the language of the poker table, “I see your mystery and I will raise you a mystery beyond it.” The world is cruel and cold; God is born a baby shivering in the cold. The world is unjust; God becomes victim of an injustice. The world is dying, and this death makes everything in us cry out to God in fear, in anger, in despair; God, in response, dies.
And in this all is reborn. All enters into the passion of the infant Christ, the passion of the man Christ, this mysterious unfathomable pity of God which ‘stoops from the heights to look down, to look down upon heaven and earth.’ (Ps 113). And all is mysteriously touched, changed, reshaped, refashioned from its most interior reality outward.
We are in an in-between time, which is always difficult for human beings. The transformation has begun, but it is still largely hidden from view. God is working this mysterious change in all reality, has worked it essentially in depth, but we await the final eruption of this transformation to appear so that all flesh will see it.
For now, we have a baby lying in a manger. We have a man hanging on a cross. We have a host in a tabernacle, a ciborium, a monstrance. We have Jesus. For now, we have Jesus, and in Him we have hope.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

One Simple Sentence

The maker is the opposite of the wonderer. He narrows the scope of reason and thus loses sight of the mystery. The more men themselves decide and do in the Church, the more cramped it becomes for us all. What is great and liberating about the Church is not something self-made but the gift that is given to us all. This gift is not the product of our own will and invention but precedes us and comes to meet us as the incomprehensible reality that is ‘greater than our heart’. The reform that is needed at all times does not consist in constantly remodeling ‘our’ Church according to our taste, or in inventing her ourselves, but in ceaselessly clearing away our subsidiary constructions to let in the pure light that comes from above and that is also the dawning of pure freedom.
Called to Communion, 140
Reflection – There are probably few subjects Ratzinger has given more attention to than the ongoing reform of the Church. As a young theologian, he was among the periti of the Second Vatican Council; as a bishop, archbishop, Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and as the bishop of Rome, he has labored unceasingly for the proper understanding and implementation of the reforms of the Council, and endured with considerable grace and charity the opprobrium and slanders of those with a different understanding of what this would mean.
We see in the above passage the central attitude he assumes towards this whole reform business. The Church is not something we make, not our creation, not our work fundamentally. It is a gift coming to us from above. The fundamental structure of the Church, its essential being and purpose and action, is given to us, is the work of God, the action of the Holy Spirit coming to us from above that gives light and freedom to our eyes.
This is so crucial. It’s not just matters we may think of as relevant to Church reform: can women be ordained priests? What about celibacy? How should the liturgy be celebrated? What about structures of authority? What is the proper role of the theologian? What about dissent? What is the mission of the laity? What about sex???????
All that stuff has its importance and place. But there is a fundamental attitude towards all reality that I believe must come before any of these matters, and indeed any matter at all can be properly understood and lived.
It’s this whole business of reality coming to us ‘from above’, of truth coming to us as a gift from God, of life being something to be wondered at before it is to be made. Wonder, awe, gratitude, contemplation—without these, we are in a sorry state of affairs. God unfolds around us moment by moment, day by day, his awesome and mighty works. The beauty of the world he made, the strange actions of love and mercy that attend all of our lives (although we miss so much by our inattentiveness), the most mysterious dispensations of his will unfolding around us moment by moment in his providential disposal of the world—all of this is to be wondered at, received, contemplated. And then, surrendered to.
It’s this whole business of Mary, you know. And the angel, and this unfathomably mysterious event in Nazareth 2000 years ago or so. “Let it be done to me according to your word.” A whole way of life, a whole approach to reality, an entire anthropology, sociology, economics, politics, ecclesiology, psychology, younameitology emerges from this one simple sentence.
It is to be our sentence, if we are to be Christians. If we want to be something else, we can say some other sentence, but this is the sentence of the Christian. “I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word,” and then this mysterious gift, this mysterious action, this mysterious Word enters our flesh. What is this? We cannot encompass it or comprehend.
We can fall down and worship, though. And this is Christmas. This is faith. This is life. Without this, we will never know how to ‘be Church’, or ‘be human’ or be much of anything worth being.
Mary, teach us.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Humble Exaltation

[In some strands of modern theology] an exaggerated solus Christus compelled its adherents to reject any cooperation of the creature, any independent significance of its response, as a betrayal of the greatness of grace. Consequently, there could be nothing meaningful in the feminine line of the Bible stretching from Eve to Mary.
Mary, the Church at the Source, 43
Reflection – When I get to blogging about Ratzinger’s Marian writings, something in my heart sings for joy. Not only because I love Mary and Pope Benedict so much, but because this was my thesis for my licentiate, a thesis which became this book.
So the subject is near and dear to my heart, having filled my little brain for over a year of my life. In this passage we see Ratzinger’s contemplation of the feminine line in the Old Testament – that line stretching from Eve to Sarah to Rachel to Hannah, with Deborah, Judith, Esther thrown in for good measure, and personified Wisdom—Sophia!—coming in at the end as an emphatic affirmation of what had gone before.
All of this feminine line, which then bears fruit in a wholly new and extraordinary way in Mary, is about response, about participation, about the total engagement of the creature in the work of the Creator. The barren women who miraculously conceive, the weak women who lead Israel into battle, and the Woman Sophia who accompanies God in every moment of his creative worked—these all communicate to us that the creature is called into an engagement with the Creator in his saving acts. We creatures are always in the mode of response and receptivity, but nonetheless an active receptivity, a passionate response.
It is this strain of modern theology (I will spare you details of names of scholars, etc. – it’s all in the book I’m quoting from here) that rejects this, that is so fixed on the masculine dimension of Christ and his initiating active role that any suggestion of meaning and goodness in the feminine dimension is suspect.
To have dignity and meaning, value and weight, in this school of theology, can only come from having power, from being on top, from being the one initiating, the one who is doing. Any kind of ‘submission’ or subjection or obediential path is understood as being totally degraded, an insult to those who are invited to walk it.
Since this is the only deal God offers the human race – the path of obedience and submission to His Holy Will – this school of theology is deeply confused and does great harm to those who are exposed to it.
And so, we have Mary – as always, the great defender of orthodoxy, and scourge of heretics in every generation. The one who shows us what it really means to be human, the lowliness and humility of our condition, but in that and only in that, our exalted role in the drama of creation and salvation. “He humbles, only to exalt,” as one of those bold women of the Bible once said (1 Sam 2:7). “He has looked on his servant in her lowliness; from henceforth all generations will call me blessed,” as She put it.

Friday, December 16, 2011

What's It For?

Freedom can abolish itself. Freedom can weary of itself when it has become empty.
Values in a Time of Upheaval, 50
Reflection – Ratzinger warns here of the danger of establishing a morality by consensus. You may be familiar with this approach to moral ‘thinking’. Namely, whatever the opinion poll says is right, is right! Same sex marriage is trending up in the polls; abortion is trending down. So the one is increasingly moral; the other is increasingly immoral.
Morality by consensus: whatever we all agree on, are at least a plurality agree upon, is right. The trouble here is that we can agree on monstrous evils. We can agree to deprive the unborn of the right to life, or Jews, or gypsies, or homosexuals. We can agree to give the state power to arrest people and hold them indefinitely without charge at the whim of those in power. President Barack Obama just signed a law allowing himself to do just that.
‘Freedom can abolish itself.’ The majority can decide just about anything. Human history is filled with example upon example of ‘the majority’ enslaving, raping, murdering, and choosing to live in conditions of profound tyranny and exploitation.
For what? For the sake of security? To make life a little bit simpler, a little easier (freedom is a burden to be borne, you know)? To get rid of undesired elements in the population? Whatever it is, ‘freedom can weary of itself when it has become empty.’
What do we need to do? We need to attain a vision of freedom that is precisely not empty. We need to rediscover, or discover for the first time, what freedom is for, what its point is, what the good of it is. Freedom is for something—it is not just a vacuous ticket to do whatever you please. Sooner or later, it will please us to legislate our freedom away. Sooner, I think.
Freedom is for love. Freedom is for truth. Freedom is for pursuing the deep meaning, the deep goodness, the transcendent value of human life. Otherwise, it is of little to no value. If I use my freedom merely to watch silly TV shows and buy stuff I don’t need, I will quickly trade it away when it becomes burdensome.
Sobering thoughts, sobering words. But such are the times we live in.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

What Ails Ya?

Making [Christ’s yes] present and actual is possible because the Lord lives even today in his saints and because in the love that comes from their faith his love can touch me directly.

To Look on Christ, 94

Reflection – In surveying the landscape of the world in the dying days of 2011, one could diagnose many illnesses, many pathologies in what we see. There is fiscal irresponsibility in high places, environmental irresponsibility (perhaps) in other places. There is moral confusion, corruption, and a breakdown of community in almost all places.
But I would say honestly that I think the great poverty afflicting us in the world today is precisely what Ratzinger touches on here. We have a poverty of saints. We need to touch Christ, you see. We need, not an endless profusion of words (hearken, o blogger!), not the endless chatter and clatter and debate of the public square, not more programs in our governments and churches, not even (principally) more services to the poor and needy, good though all these things may be.
We need saints. What ails humanity, always and everywhere and in every age, is the great ‘no’ to God that I have been reflecting on with the Pope this past week or so. This great choice in humanity to go its own way, to make a life apart from God, away from Him, in opposition to Him perhaps, but certainly separated from Him. And this ‘no’ places us in a terrible wilderness, a terrible darkness, a strange sort of hell of the self, an endless hall of mirrors where all we can see is our own egoism reflected back to us.
This is, as I say, the perennial complaint of the human race, our chronic illness. And Christ is the remedy. His ‘yes’ to the Father, made as man, but made an eternally fruitful ‘yes’ by the fact that he is God, this yes is powerful enough to heal all of our ‘nos’.
But we need saints. We need to see that yes. We need to see what it looks like when a sinner like us through some unaccountable miracle says ‘yes’ to God and so is transformed by the power of Christ.
Everything that ails the world—all the fiscal, environmental, moral, communal, etc. failures we see on all sides at this time—traces back to the rampant ‘no’ to God, the endemic choice in our time to build a world apart from and without God. And nothing will ever be made right in this world until we repent of this choice and return to Him without whom the world does not exist and cannot be what He designed it to be.
And it is the saints who in every age show us what this repentance, this return, looks like, and what God want the world today to look like. Only they know, because only they have attacked the problem at its root. The saints are radicals; they attack the problem at the root, and the root of the problem, now and always and forever and ever, is sin. My sin, your sin.
There is a poverty of saints in the world today, a poverty of people who can make visible Christ’s yes to the Father, the human yes to God that is the healing of the nations. A poverty of saints… hmm. Now, where will we find them? Where are they going to come from? Hey! How about you and me! Do you think that could work?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lest We Forget

Well, we're having a day of recollection today for Catherine Doherty's anniversary of death here at MH. Now, I am not a worrying sort of person, generally, but one thing that preys on my mind is this:
Catherine Doherty is, in my view, one of the great prophets of the Lord of our time. I would rank her, frankly, alongside Maximillian Kolbe, John Paul II, and Pope Benedict.
Problem is, she is slowly being forgotten, I believe. Certainly there is a whole generation of young Catholics who have never heard of her or been exposed to her luminous writings.
Madonna House is a small community, and poor in many ways, financial not the least of them. We are limited in our ability to get Catherine's prophetic words out there to the world.
But hey, the Internet is free, more or less... Here's a thought. My previous blog post, Life With A Russian Bear, had a lovely article by her on proper love of self and the healing of self-hatred. How about if 26 (at least!) of my facebook friends share this post on their wall, in honor of Catherine's 26th anniversary of death?
And if you want, you could invite 26 of your friends to do the same - share it on their wall. That would make 276 people posting something by Catherine on their walls... and who knows where it could go from there?
A modest proposal... to bring a life giving word to the world.

Life With a Russian Bear

I interrupt the usual ‘Benedict blogging’ today as it is the 26th Anniversary of death of the Servant of God, Catherine de Hueck Doherty.
For those who may stumble upon this blog (watch that first step – it’s a doozy!) and don’t know me, Catherine is the founder of the Madonna House Apostolate, of which I have been a member for 20 years. She was a refugee of the Russian Revolution who became Catholic, came to Canada and devoted her life to service of the poor in a wide variety of venues and means.
This excerpt from a 1977 New Covenant article I chose for three reasons: it captures her style wonderfully; it has a Christmas theme; it reflects on the type of poverty she and MH turned more and more towards alleviating in the last decades of her life and our subsequent community life. It’s a bit long, but worth the read!
So here it is, our very own ‘Russian bear’ of a passionate lover of God and humanity, calling us to take a good look in the mirror:

I was praying last night, and a very joyful idea came to me which I want to share with you. At first it wasn’t joyful at all. I entered into a sort of gloomy state. I didn’t despair, because a Christian never despairs, but I was really down, because I realized that no matter what you do, no matter how much you tell people, no matter how much you explain...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Please Don't Throw Me in the Briar Patch!"

The closer a person is to God, the closer he is to people. We see this in Mary. The fact that she is totally with God is the reason why she is so close to human beings.
For this reason she can be the Mother of every consolation and every help, a Mother whom anyone can dare to address in any kind of need in weakness and in sin, for she has understanding for everything and is for everyone the open power of creative goodness. In her, God has impressed his own image, the image of the One who follows the lost sheep even up into the mountains and among the briars and thornbushes of the sins of this world, letting himself be spiked by the crown of thorns of these sins in order to take the sheep on his
shoulders and bring it home.
As a merciful Mother, Mary is the anticipated figure and everlasting portrait of the Son. Thus, we see that the image of the Sorrowful Virgin, of the Mother who shares her suffering and her love, is also a true image of the Immaculate Conception. Her heart was enlarged by being and feeling together with God. In her, God's goodness came very close to us.
Mary thus stands before us as a sign of comfort, encouragement and hope. She turns to us, saying: “Have the courage to dare with God! Try it! Do not be afraid of him! Have the courage to risk with faith! Have the courage to risk with goodness! Have the courage to risk with a pure heart! Commit yourselves to God, then you will see that it is precisely by doing so that your life will become broad and light, not boring but filled with infinite surprises, for God's infinite goodness is never depleted!”

Homily, Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, 2005

Reflection – Well, again Pope Benedict delivers the goods for us here. I think one of the things that truly holds people back from the path of the Gospel is fear of suffering. Wouldn’t you agree?
We read the lives of the saints, or we simply look at Christ Himself, and we cannot fail to notice how much suffering their lives contained. And so we hesitate… do we really want to do this thing? This Gospel thing? Is there some easier way, some half measure, some way to slide through life and sneak into heaven with a last minute act of contrition, maybe?
It is this whole business that the closer we get to God, the closer we get to people… and people might hurt us, you know! Or at least, their troubles and woes will become ours, as we come to truly care about them. The Good Shepherd does go among the briars and thornbushes of the world, and he’s looking for helpers… am I willing to get all cut up like that?
This is the dilemma all serious Christians face at some point. The Cross unveils itself in our lives, and it’s not necessarily such a pretty picture. We become very aware, sooner or later, of what the cost of discipleship really is, in concrete terms, for us. And rare indeed is the one who doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t flinch.
So we have this woman, this Mother, this Lady. The one who allowed God to enlarge her heart to the closest measure of His heart possible for a finite creature. The one who, when the Cross unveiled itself in her life, stood there. She didn’t seem to hesitate or flinch—she just stood.
And she communicates to us precisely what the Pope relays in this homily (it is so clear that he is a man, not only of erudition and brilliance, but of deep personal prayer and reflection). Namely, that life in and with Christ is not heavy or constricted or sad or grim. It is joyful, broad, exciting. A life spent plunged into the forests and thickets of the world with the Shepherd of souls is a life that is rich and varied, painful yes, but a pain that comes from love—and who wants to live without love, anyhow?
Mary has this gift of encouragement for us because she is one of us—a woman, a creature, a mere human being. She is one of us, and she did it, did this thing that we hesitate over, anguish over, aren’t too sure we can manage. She did it, perfectly, and communicates to us not only that it is doable with God’s help, but that it is a radiant life, a beautiful life, a glorious life.
Like Br'er Rabbit, it turns out that we were made to live in the briar patch - the very thing we shy away from is the life that will make us truly happy.
So as Advent wends it way along, let’s put one hand in Mary’s hand, the other in Jesus’, and let them lead us out into the hills and valleys, the briars and bushes, the hot deserts and freezing Northern plains, the tropical jungle heat and the urban noise and rush—so that our life can be spent in love and service of humanity wherever He wishes, so that our life too can become an ‘everlasting portrait of the Son’. So that we can become saints, in short.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Queen of the Americas

On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, we have a lurking suspicion that a person who does not sin must really be basically boring and that something is missing from his life: the dramatic dimension of being autonomous; that the freedom to say no, to descend into the shadows of sin and to want to do things on one's own is part of being truly human; that only then can we make the most of all the vastness and depth of our being men and women, of being truly ourselves; that we should put this freedom to the test, even in opposition to God, in order to become, in reality, fully ourselves.
In a word, we think that evil is basically good, we think that we need it, at least a little, in order to experience the fullness of being. We think that Mephistopheles — the tempter — is right when he says he is the power "that always wants evil and always does good" (J.W. von Goethe, Faust I, 3). We think that a little bargaining with evil, keeping for oneself a little freedom against God, is basically a good thing, perhaps even necessary.
If we look, however, at the world that surrounds us we can see that this is not so; in other words, that evil is always poisonous, does not uplift human beings but degrades and humiliates them. It does not make them any the greater, purer or wealthier, but harms and belittles them.
This is something that we should indeed learn on the day of the Immaculate Conception: the person who abandons himself totally in God's hands does not become God's puppet, a boring "yes man"; he does not lose his freedom. Only the person who entrusts himself totally to God finds true freedom, the great, creative immensity of the freedom of good.
The person who turns to God does not become smaller but greater, for through God and with God he becomes great, he becomes divine, he becomes truly himself. The person who puts himself in God's hands does not distance himself from others, withdrawing into his private salvation; on the contrary, it is only then that his heart truly awakens and he becomes a sensitive, hence, benevolent and open person.
Homily, Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, 2005
Reflection – It’s all a question of how we attain greatness, isn’t it? We are made for great things. There is something in every human being, even the most prosaic and mediocre, that somehow somewhere knows this. There is never a human being who is truly content with being an extra in the drama of life, merely a member of the chorus, to be listed in the credits of the universe as “Man Wearing Hat” or “Woman Customer.”
No we all await our star turn, the moment when we are ‘discovered’ by… well, by somebody anyhow. We are made for greatness.
The question is how do we get there. The path laid out for us by the pattern of original sin is that of self-assertion, self-aggrandizement, self… self-self, basically. I am great because I am me, and I am special, and I will show you just how great I am.
The path of the world. And this is what Pope Benedict is reflecting on in this part of the homily – how convinced we are that we need a little disobedience in our lives, need a little rebellion, need to go off the path of goodness if we are going to ‘be all that we can be’. “If you want to have a future, you’d better get a past,” Cole Porter quips in one of his songs (can’t remember which at this moment…).
This, like so many of Cole Porter’s clever and witty lyrics, is a lie. The world created by this lie is the world we live in – a world increasingly without a future, as everyone scrabbles for their fifteen minutes of fame/piece of the pie/place in the sun/howeveryouwannaputit. And the Euro goes broke, taking the rest of the world economy down with it, while the culture of death yields a demographic winter and we all end up reverting to barbarism. Such is the future yielded by the Gospel of self-assertion.
The Gospel shows us a different path. And Mary stands as the one human creature who walked that path perfectly by God’s grace. And she is Queen of Heaven and Earth.
This queenship of Mary – what does it mean. Is she standing on a cloud, or the moon, or sitting on a throne with a scepter and a crown?
Maybe. But her true and essential queenship is her sharing in the kingship of her Son. And his kingship is his superabundant, infinite charity for all his creatures. So our Queen, Mary, is overflowing with love and compassion for all God’s children who are now hers too. And this is what we see at Guadalupe, why it is such a beloved and tender feast of the Mother of God. Her concern, compassion, solicitude for the people of Mexico, so beleaguered then and now, her desire for a church to be built so they can ‘come and tell me their sorrows’, her tender interactions with St. Juan Diego, so motherly, so gentle, and yet so firm. Queen of the Americas, indeed.
This is what a human being looks like when they cooperate with God. They become great. They become radiant. They become everything any of us wants to be, really: regal, majestic, loving, happy, secure, strong.
There are two paths: the path laid out by original sin, which leads to degradation and death, and the path of the Gospel which leads to glory and life. And yet somehow we hesitate about which one to take. Funny creatures, we human beings, eh?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Place God Comes to Make Us Rich

Love is not dependence but a gift that makes us live. The freedom of a human being is the freedom of a limited being, and therefore is itself limited. We can possess it only as a shared freedom, in the communion of freedom: only if we live in the right way, with one another and for one another, can freedom develop.
We live in the right way if we live in accordance with the truth of our being, and that is, in accordance with God's will. For God's will is not a law for the human being imposed from the outside and that constrains him, but the intrinsic measure of his nature, a measure that is engraved within him and makes him the image of God, hence a free creature.
If we live in opposition to love and against the truth — in opposition to God — then we destroy one another and destroy the world. Then we do not find life but act in the interests of death. All this is recounted with immortal images in the history of the original fall of man and the expulsion of man from the earthly

Homily: Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, 2005

Reflection – So much wisdom packed into three little paragraphs. Perhaps the most important words in this bit of the homily are these: ‘the freedom of a human being is the freedom of a limited being and therefore is itself limited. We can possess it only as a shared freedom, in the communion of freedom.’
If we understand this, we understand almost everything about our life, God and our relationship to him, the nature of morality. These two short sentences even open up for us a rich meditation into the mystery of Christ, the Incarnation, the Cross, the tomb, the resurrection. The collapse of the human person, rejecting this shared freedom, into death and dissolution, and the mysterious coming of God who loves us so very much, to penetrate the very heart of this rejection, this collapse, this death. Much to ponder here, much to pray about.
I was just talking with one of our young guests (for those who don’t know Madonna House, we have a live-in guest program in which people come and participate in our communal life for periods ranging from a week to a year). He was laying out for me in considerable detail the normal life of a young person living outside of any context of faith and Church in the year 2011.
‘We destroy one another and destroy the world’ pretty well sums up his description of things. Alcohol and drugs and casual no-strings attached sex: all in a context of deep hopelessness and futile anger, a profound despair and meaninglessness. Such is the world fashioned by the culture of moral relativism for many, many young people today. Those of us who defend the concept of absolute morality are often derided as cruel and judgmental; the real cruelty lies with those who have denuded our world of any solid ground for these young ones to live and be happy.
It is odd, I realize, that the way back to joy and freedom is the way of Law, but it is so nonetheless. We are limited creatures; our freedom is a shared freedom; the one who secures us in freedom is the Unlimited One who is also the All Free One; we enter and share in his unlimited freedom by communion in love with Him; this communion in love with Him is the path of obedience.
Mary, as always, is the one who shows us the radiant beauty and luminous simplicity of this way. She lived in this limitation of human being: “He has looked on his servant in her lowliness.” And so she entered into the true grandeur of participation in God’s life: “From this day all generations will call me blessed, for the Almighty has done great things for me.”
And so it is Advent. A time when we are called to ponder our limitations, our insufficiency, our need for communion with this mysterious Other so as to be truly free. Our poverty, which is simply the place where God comes to us to make us rich. God ransoms captive Israel and sets us free from the ancient curse. He comes to us—and this is the consolation and joy of Christmas. He came; he comes; he will come. We were freed; we are free; we will be made free. Alleluia.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Where Are You?

It was foretold that the struggle between humanity and the serpent, that is, between man and the forces of evil and death, would continue throughout history. It was also foretold, however, that the "offspring" of a woman would one day triumph and would crush the head of the serpent to death; it was foretold that the offspring of the woman — and in this offspring the woman and the mother herself — would be victorious and that thus, through man, God would triumph.
If we set ourselves with the believing and praying Church to listen to this text, then we can begin to understand what original sin, inherited sin, is and also what the protection against this inherited sin is, what redemption is. What picture does this passage show us?
The human being does not trust God. Tempted by the serpent, he harbors the suspicion that in the end, God takes something ways from his life, that God is a rival who curtails our freedom and that we will be fully human only when we have cast him aside; in brief, that only in this way can we fully achieve our freedom.
The human being lives in the suspicion that God's love creates a dependence and that he must rid himself of this dependency if he is to be fully himself. Man does not want to receive his existence and the fullness of his life from God.
He himself wants to obtain from the tree of knowledge the power to shape the world, to make himself a god, raising himself to God's level, and to overcome death and darkness with his own efforts. He does not want to rely on love that to him seems untrustworthy; he relies solely on his own knowledge since it confers power upon him.
Rather than on love, he sets his sights on power, with which he desires to take his own life autonomously in hand. And in doing so, he trust in deceit rather than in truth and thereby sinks with his life into emptiness, into death.
Homily, Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, 2005
Reflection – We see in this part of the homily the ‘bad news,’ the trouble, the problem. The whole central problem of humanity which underlies everything else that goes wrong with us, with our lives, with our world.
Namely, ‘the human being does not trust God.’ We look on God as someone we have to be careful around, have to guard ourselves against, have to not get to close to, lest we lose something. That’s it, really, the central lie that God takes something away from us. That He diminishes our life, somehow. That’s what the serpent said to Eve, that’s why she took the fruit, why she and Adam chose the path they chose. The underlying historical reality of this original sin is immaterial; what matters is that at some point humanity decided there was a better path available than dependence on and obedience to God. We had a better idea.
And so enters sin, violence, exploitation, misery, poverty, sickness, and death. Yep, this is the ‘bad news’ part of the equation. “He trusts in deceit rather than in truth, and thereby sinks with his life into emptiness, into death.”
Of course God is not undone by this. “Where are you,” is the great cry of God to humanity in rebellion, in hiding. And the strange mystery we will celebrate a mere two weeks from now is that God not only asks us this, but comes to be with us. God comes and hides behind those bushes with us, in a matter of speaking, joins us in our pitiable condition, and so changes it.
And Mary is the one who is the solitary silent witness to this mystery, and who herself never hid from Him, and so could give him the gift of her flesh. Was she diminished? Did she lose out from this choice? This is the key question she holds out for humanity, the key challenge to our central human decision. ‘Where are you?” God asks us. “Where are you?” we could well ask Mary. And she could well say what Jesus said to his disciples: “Come and see.” Bad news? Good news? Our choice.

Friday, December 9, 2011

God Has Not Failed

We must ask ourselves: What does "Mary, the Immaculate" mean? Does this title have something to tell us? Today, the liturgy illuminates the content of these words for us in two great images.
First of all comes the marvelous narrative of the annunciation of the Messiah's coming to Mary, the Virgin of Nazareth. The Angel's greeting is interwoven with thread: from the Old Testament, especially from the Prophet Zephaniah. He shows that Mary, the humble provincial woman who comes from a priestly race and bears within her the great priestly patrimony of Israel, "the holy remnant" of Israel to which the prophets referred it all the periods of trial and darkness.
In her is present the true Zion, the pure, living dwelling place of God. In her the Lord dwells, in her he finds the place of his repose. She is the living house of God, who does not dwell in buildings of stone but in the heart of living man. She is the shoot which sprouts from the stump of David in the dark winter night of history. In her, the words of the Psalm are fulfilled: "The earth has yielded its fruits" (Ps 67:7).
She is the offshoot from which grew the tree of redemption and of the redeemed. God has not failed, as it might have seemed formerly at the beginning of history with Adam and Eve or during the period of the Babylonian Exile, and as it seemed anew in Mary's time when Israel had become a people with no importance in an occupied region and with very few recognizable signs of its holiness.
Homily: Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, 2005
Reflection - God has not failed - what a lovely message from yesterday's feast. So often, we can struggle with just that. Where is God in my pain, in my struggle, in my problems, in my own failures? Where is God? What is He doing? And so often the specific answer is nowhere near being clear. Sometimes it's all very dark indeed.
And so with Mary we see that God has not failed. That's all. There is a woman in whom his perfect designs are achieved, and from her flesh comes the flesh of Christ who saves us in all our distress. God has not failed.
Advent is a time when we enter with the earth the season of darkness (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) and so touch the darkness of the world and our own interior darkness. It is a time of cold, of damp (in these parts, anyhow) and of a strange quiet upon the land. In this strange quiet, the figure of the Woman is unveiled before us, the one in whom God achieved his perfect purposes.
As we slip and slide on the ice of our lives, shiver in the cold and dark of our times, we draw near to this Woman, and draw warmth from her. God has not failed; we will not fail, if we stay close to Her and let Her lead us close to Her Son.
This is Advent hope; this is Christian hope. And its great icon is the Mother of God, the Immaculate One, the one who did what we long to do but fall short. Let's stay with her for a few more days on this blog (maybe until Dec 12, the next big feast day of hers!), so that she can renew our hope and assure us of God's perfect plan to make our life, and the life of the world, a success.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

It's Not a Competition

The doctrine of the immaculata testifies accordingly that God’s grace was powerful enough to awaken a response, that grace and freedom, grace and being oneself, renunciation and fulfillment are only apparent contradictories; in reality one conditions the other and grants it its very existence.
Daughter Zion, 71
Reflection – Happy Feast Day to you all! It is the feast of the creation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the awesome grace God gave her from the very beginning of her life, to be preserved from original sin, so as to be a fit vessel for the Incarnate Word.
It is one of the most common complaints against Catholics by Protestants that we exalt Mary at the expense of Jesus. To give honor and praise to the Mother detracts from the Son, goes the usual drill.
If we look carefully at this feast and this mystery of the Immaculate Conception, though, especially in light of this passage from Ratzinger, we see that this is not true. In this mystery, we see that Mary’s very being was itself a gracious gift of God. There is nothing about Mary, from the first moment of her being, that was ‘hers’, that she had as her own apart from, over and against God.
Her soul magnified the Lord, and her spirit rejoiced in God her savior. Mary was all God’s, from the beginning. So, nothing that is said of Mary, no matter how exalted and fulsome it may be, deprives God of any glory, since Mary is entirely his creature, his work of art. To praise the painting does not detract from the artist, obviously.
Deeper than the immediate concern with Our Lady is what this reveals about all of us. And this is what Ratzinger meditates on above. God and man are not in a competition. God’s gracious gift and human freedom are not opposed to each other. So often the modern world ‘illuminated’ by such thinkers as Sartre or Nietzsche considers it thus: if God exists, man is not free. For human beings to attain full freedom and dignity, we must shed the burden of God. In traditional Protestant theology the same idea is expressed alternately; to preserve the awesome majesty of God, any goodness or dignity in man must be denied.
God in his action of creating Mary shows us that neither is true. His gift to her from her conception makes her freely able to consent to being the Mother of the Redeemer. The entire action of grace is not meant to override our freedom, to make us slaves of God, but to awaken in us the response of faith and love: let it be done to me according to thy word… my soul magnifies the Lord.
So this is the great joy of this day, the great joy Mary brings to us who honor her. Human life is not essentially tragic or all grubby and soiled or a nasty brutal struggle for survival. Human life, in its divinely mandated essence, is an encounter with love, an encounter with grace, an encounter with God who fashions us, refashions us, pours mercy upon us, comes to our assistance in every turning, and who promises to see us through to the completion of our journey.
Happy Feast day to all, and may our joy in it bring us a little closer to that happy completion.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Preservation from original sin… signifies that Mary reserves no area of being, life, and will for herself as a private possession: instead, precisely in the total dispossession of self, in giving herself to God, she comes to the true possession of self. Grace as dispossession becomes response as appropriation. Thus from another view point the mystery of barren fruitfulness, the paradox of the barren mother, the mystery of virginity, becomes intelligible once more: dispossession as belonging, as the locus of new life.
Daughter Zion, 70
Reflection – Deep stuff here, deep, deep stuff. It is worth, as a preparation for tomorrow’s great feast of the Immaculate Conception, to simply go through this short passage from Daughter Zion and meditate on it.
Original sin as reserving some part of our being, life, and will as a private possession: the woman took the fruit and ate it, and gave to her husband, and he ate it. My life is my own, and I will do as I please. This is the one thing Mary never said, never did.
Ratzinger calls us here to a deep reflection on what it means to be a person, what it means to be a ‘self’, an individual. The world shaped by original sin says that it means precisely that attitude: I will do what I will do. Mary, as immaculately conceived reveals something entirely different. She opens up for us, or rather God by working this grace in her opens up for us an entirely different picture of what it means to be human. ‘In giving herself to God, she comes to the true possession of self.’ That is a sentence we could meditate on for the rest of our lives. Self-possessed usually means for us someone who is in total control of themselves at all times. God offers us a different path of self-possession: one who is giving himself or herself away at all times.
And the next one: ‘grace as dispossession becomes response as appropriation.’ As Mother Theresa put it, ‘God cannot fill what is already full’. And to be filled by God with God is the whole substance of our humanity, its divine purpose, our glorious human destiny. All these realities in human spiritual life that we find so painful and messy: loss, purification, grief, death to self, humiliation—they all are about emptying that inner space that God means to fill with Himself. Mary, immaculately conceived, shows us that the truth of our humanity, our unmarred nature, is precisely this mystery and this glory. To be filled with God – this is Mary’s one role, her one purpose, her vocation. As is ours.
And so Ratzinger links all of this to what most of this book is about: the long feminine line in the Old Testament of barren mothers, of women made fruitful by the action of God, of Israel held in being by the action of God, of all creation opening up to receive the action of God with joyful response. In Mary all of this is brought to perfection: what God did in the history of his sinful people he now shows forth in the very being and person of this one little girl who He preserves from that terrible mysterious ‘drift’ of original sin, and so makes her into a living icon of creation, of the human person, and thus of the Church, humanity made into a living temple of God.
The Immaculate Conception, which we celebrate tomorrow, is utterly relevant and important to your life and mine. It shows us who we are, really, by showing us what humanity looks like when all the distortions and lies are removed from it. And so we see who we are, what we are meant to do, what our already glorious present and still more glorious future holds for us, and how we are to get there: let God empty us of self, so we can be filled with Himself.
All wrapped up in the most delightful and charming thing God ever made: a truly beautiful woman. So we don’t have to be theologians or philosophers or any sort of rubbish like that: we just need to go to our Mama and say, “Teach me what you know.” And she does.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Cosmic Drifters

Original sin is the collapse of what man is, both in his origin from God and in himself, the contradiction between the will of the Creator and man’s empirical being. This contradiction between God’s ‘is’ and man’s ‘is not’ is lacking in the case of Mary, and consequently God’s judgment about her is pure ‘Yes’, just as she herself stands before him as a pure ‘Yes.’
Daughter Zion, 70
Reflection – Well, the great feast is coming! Hope you have all your preparations done – all the decorating and special food and shopping… After all, it’s only two days away!
Oh, you thought I meant that other feast – whatchamas! No, no—I mean December 8, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The great feast, the feast of the prelude of salvation, the feast celebrating the immediate work done by God to prepare the whole cosmos for the grace of his Incarnation, his saving act in Christ.
The term ‘immaculate conception’ is widely misunderstood. Many people—even educated people—seem to think it refers to the miraculous virginal conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary. It does not.
It refers to Mary’s conception in the womb of her mother. Mary was conceived according to the natural human way, through the sexual union of her parents, who tradition tells us were named Joachim and Anne. The ‘immaculate’ quality is that, by a special and unique dispensation of God, in view of the merits of Christ’s redemption, Mary was preserved from the stain of original sin from the first moment of her existence, so as to be a fitting vessel to receive the Incarnate Word by the Holy Spirit, and pass on to Him our human nature in an unblemished form.
OK, that’s all a mouthful, and very theological and precise. So, who cares? All very nice for Our Lady (we might say) but what difference is it to you and me? Well, that’s what we’re going to spend the next few days discussing on this blog, helped by Ratzinger’s magnificent little book Daughter Zion.
We see in the above passage a reflection of something we all know from bitter experience. This ‘original sin’, which I don’t think anyone really understands (we have doctrinal formulations for that, too, which I will spare you at this moment): it’s something we all know in our bones, even if we don’t always use the Church’s vocabulary for it.
Simply put, we are conflicted creatures. Part of us wants God; part of us does not. Part of us wants to love; part of us does not. Part of us opens up to life, to beauty, to joy, to everything good and holy and true; part of us caves in on ourselves and clings to selfishness, rancor, spite, jealousy.
On and on and on. We all know this. There is some strange spirit in us that turns away from what will make us happy, some strange energy at work in every human heart that leads to misery and ruin. It is a universal thread running through all human history and every human story. Good is only attained by struggle and effort; evil, we fall into. As Mae West put it, “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” We drift, we human beings. We are conflicted, marred creatures, all of us.
Almost. The Immaculate Conception means that one little word. Almost. Without Mary, we would have a terrible problem, you see. Without Immaculate Mary (whose praises we sing), we would have to conclude that this horrible conflicted reality of humanity is in fact the essential truth, the essential story of the human race. We just are a race of failures, misfits, nogoodniks, drifters. A bunch of cosmic troublemakers: ‘everything was just fine until they showed up,’ one could hear the angels and the stars saying.
Almost. We have this one little girl, you see. And God was able to preserve her from this terrible burden of original sin, not so that she could have a wonderful life (I strongly suspect Mary suffered deeply all her life—imagine being wholly one, wholly ordered to goodness and love, and wholly immersed in the world as we know it), but so that we could see in her, and in God’s action in her, what human beings really are.
Not what we’ve made ourselves to be, not what this strange mysterious wound in our nature has wrought in us, but what He made us to be, and what His work desires to fashion us into. Mary is immaculate, and we are not. But what we see in her immaculate nature is what God wishes to do in each of us, to make us that ‘Yes’ to Him so that His ‘Yes’ to us can find a response, an echo, a true reflection of the love that comes from Him and is in Christ.
And that’s what humanity is, and that’s what the Immaculate Conception reveals to us. And we will continue the next couple days to reflect on this mystery. Now go do your Immaculate Conception shopping and baking and decorating and…

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Thinking of Getting a Tattoo

The humility that gives way to what has been found and does not try to manipulate it should not, however, become a false modesty that takes away our courage to recognize the truth. All the more must it oppose the pursuit of power, which is only interested in dominating the world and is no longer willing to perceive its inner logic, which sets limits to our desire to dominate.”
Truth and Tolerance, 159
Reflection – This passage follows directly upon yesterday’s, regarding the call to live in truth, to have truth and not our desires and whims be the guiding force in our work and lives.
Here, Ratzinger clarifies that this commitment to truth is meant to be a bold one. We are not to be all wussy about it: ‘well, I don’t know, and maybe it is, and let’s wait and see, and I’m not sure, and….’ Blah, blah, blah. Pussyfooting around.
No, we are a prophetic people. When we apprehend the truth, we are to fearlessly and faithfully proclaim it and bear the burden Christ bore, of opposition, ridicule, persecution and even martyrdom, if that’s where our witness to truth takes us.
This is so utterly crucial today. In Egypt, Christian babies are often tattooed with a cross on their wrist, so they cannot be kidnapped by their Muslim neighbors. This means that a Christian in Egypt goes through life with the mark of Truth displayed for all to see, even though this causes them great suffering and loss. They know what it means to bear witness to the truth of Christ in face of persecution… and the Coptic Church of Egypt is vibrant and growing, even as it faces intensifying attacks.
What about us? Where is our ‘tattoo’? Governments in the Western world are increasingly compelling Catholic and Christian institutions to provide services that contradict our basic religious beliefs as they apply to human life and sexuality: contraception, abortion, adoption to same sex couples. It is increasingly becoming dangerous, or at the very least extremely unpleasant, to simply speak the truth about the moral law as we believe it has been revealed to us by God.
For example, homosexual intercourse is gravely evil. Same sex marriage is a contradiction in terms. Human life begins at conception, and any action taken to end a human life is gravely evil. Assisted reproduction techniques which separate the marital embrace from the act of conception are gravely evil. The use of contraceptive devices or medications is gravely evil.
So there. Come and get me, you who wish to force Christians to shut up about these matters. You’ll never take me alive, coppers!!! Top of the world, ma!.. Oh sorry, started channeling Jimmy Cagney gangster movies there for a minute…
But in all seriousness, Christians have lost their jobs recently for simply saying some of the things I just said, even in private conversations. In a way, it’s easy for me: I’m a Catholic priest, and I don’t think I’m going to get fired for expressing Catholic moral teaching on a blog post. I realize this, that I have a somewhat privileged place, at least at this time. It may not always be so easy…
But it’s not so easy, I do realize, even now for Christians in the work place and the secular world to do this. So we need to remember those brave Egyptian Copts and their tattoos. Where the Church is persecuted, the Church grows strong and vibrant. When the world turns on us, heaven turns towards us. The blood of martyrs is the seed bed of faith. And we’ve had some significant ‘crop failures’ of faith in the past century or so in the Western world.
Truth, and the passionate proclamation of it, the fierce commitment to it, the willingness to bear any burden, pay any price, suffer any resistance—this is our prophetic mission as Catholic Christians in the coming year 2012. Let us pray for one another, for all those who are particularly in the crucible right now, and for the grace to do what we need to do so that Christ be proclaimed to the world until he comes in glory.