Monday, December 24, 2012

Humility: A small thing? (Advent Reflection)

Note: This was written about a week back and concerns this Sunday's readings (12/23/2012, Link to readings). This is a short reflection I offer you as we come to the close of Advent.

My family is getting to that point where the next generation are having their first and second children. Now when we gather for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and other events they come in, give everyone their obligatory hug, and proceed to pull out every single toy in the basement, play with it for an average of 5 seconds, and move onto something else. Nevertheless we all look on, either smiling at what they do or chasing them so they don't hurt themselves by falling down a flight of stairs. Scripture, in a manner of speaking, doesn't surprise me when it says that small and insignificant-looking things can and will produce a large and pervasive effect.

This can only happen, I suppose, when we come to appreciate something small as God's most powerful tool. Mary's sister Elizabeth certainly seemed to appreciate it. When Mary, a young lady of probably 15 or 16 years of age entered her house and greeted her she felt her own son, John, leap in her womb. Mary's greeting and the reaction of her unborn son prompted her to say “blessed are you among women” and “how is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” What Elizabeth knew in faith is not unlike what we know in love from looking at a little child. A relationship with our Savior is obviously different than watching a child play, but both fill us with words inexpressible. All we can do is look on with wonder and gratitude.

Indeed, we hear often among others who speak to the mother of a little child, “What a beautiful child, you're so lucky.” Perhaps it's not so different in tone next to 'blessed are you among women.'

The meeting between Mary and Elizabeth was also a meeting of the unborn Jesus Christ and John the Baptist. In the wombs of two women meeting in private rested the herald of a new age and the King of all ages. In the quiet privacy of a Jewish woman's home was a new era. Elizabeth, recognizing this silent revolution, rejoices. The author of Hebrews captures this feeling: he recounts that “in burnt offerings and sacrifice you did not desire” (cf. Heb 5:5-10) but rather God delighted in those who did his will.

No flashy work can produce the same fruit as a humble submission to God's will. The strange thing is that this very submission makes something even more wonderful then the spectacle a public sacrifice in the temple might have been. Mary is praised with such fantastic words because she believed “that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.” She is not praised because she has worked some magnificent sign, but she is praised because she heard the voice of God, believed it, and acted on it with a simple 'yes.' This simple and private 'yes' changed her whole life, indeed it changed all of our lives.

This humility and trust produces, as it were, a light to the whole world. The feeling is not unlike that child who captures everyone's attention at a family party. Perhaps our own faith should be regarded as a little child—it is small and innocent and, when we look upon it, we regard it with infinite wonder and gratitude, seeking what's best for it because we realize the profound impact it really has on us and those around us.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Mary Most Holy

When I have debated with others about the Genesis narratives of creation one comment that emerges is the similarities of those narratives to other creation narratives, most notably the Enuma Elish in Babylonian mythology. This similarity for some is proof enough that the Biblical account is merely one among many accounts or that it simply stole from their captors but made minor changes (The Enuma Elish predates the written Biblical account).

Many Christian scholars now believe that the similarity in construction is intentional and that the Genesis account is structured close to the Babylonian myth in order to act as a theological polemic. When one puts both accounts side by side it seems as if the syntax is nearly identical—for the undiscerning mind. The slight changes of both tone and process reveals a delicate construction on the part of both authors, Babylonian or Hebrew. Contained in simple mythological language are commentaries about creation, the nature of man, the nature of God (or gods), and much more. In reading both I have always found that the Hebrew account was in all ways more fascinating, powerful, and rich. This is not simply my allegiance to Christ but also simply taking both narratives by the power of their own arguments. The Biblical account has the advantage of being the “response” so to speak, but some of the best and most compelling arguments are the ones that sound almost exactly like your opponent but turn the whole issue on its head. The Genesis accounts, both of them (but more the first), share this excellent quality.

This is a perfect example of someone who has taken the time to align the syntax of both stories in such a way so as to situate them as merely a historical occurrence. Indeed, at face value they are nearly identical when seen in this way. What the author of this rather long and not un-scholarly article fails to consider is "why" and "how" the stories are presented.
If the author does not believe in God (or discounts a perspective of belief) those questions are irrelevant anyhow. See the comments at the bottom of this article to see how others treat it. For them it's not a matter of it could be true, or that the construction is intentional, but that it's human, all too human. (Article)

I give you this example as a way of introducing a thought of mine on the great and beautiful account of Mary. It is not the fruit of years of research or devotion—I have not had the grace others who experience an intimate relationship with Mary in their prayer—but I must admit that as I grow older I am drawn more quickly to reflect on her maternal love and anguish, both of them intensified beyond my comprehension by virtue of her son, Jesus Christ. What I want to propose is that the Evangelists, men who knew Scripture and indeed had the Spirit working within them, chose a similar approach of expressing Mary. I do not deny the historicity of the Annunciation but I found it worth my time reflecting on the parallels between Mary's mission, as it were, and the mission and commission of others in Scripture. The similarities tie her into a greater narrative and the differences set her apart. This was a conscious choice by the Evangelists but also, in my mind, their indication of a most unique specialness of Mary in the whole of history.
Her uniqueness often lies in what makes her most unnoticeable.
I will focus on Luke who has a special interest in Mary. Luke also is kind enough to give us the whole paradigm by relating the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist to his father Zechariah. This narrative alone has strong parallels in Abraham's call and promise of a son. When the angel of the Lord told them that their wives would bear them a son Abraham laughed and Zechariah said “How shall I know this? I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). This is the response of mankind, from ancient times immemorial to the present day. God promises the fantastic and impossible and we shake our heads both stupefied and incredulous.

At first glance, it would seem Mary's response is no different: “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Lk 1:34). This is a problem for English that masks this profound difference of Mary. In the Greek (I won't bore you with all the details) Zechariah asks “how shall I know this” as if to say 'unless I know how can I believe?' This is why the angel silences him, literally, saying “Now you will be speechless … because you did not believe my words” (Lk 1:20). Mary, on the other hand, responds with the verb “estai” in Greek which perhaps colloquially means “how can this be” but has the force of “it shall be, how shall it come about?” Zechariah asked how will he know (gnosomai) whereas Mary asks with that powerful verb 'to be' “how will it come to pass?” Already, in this small juxtaposition we see in Mary that there is no tension between her and the message of God. This is why she can say afterward “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).

We take for granted the circumstances of this passage. After all, an angel of the Lord presents himself to Mary and she trembles as every other man and woman had in all of Scripture. Yet when she is addressed there is no hesitation.

More curious and fascinating still is that in nearly every narrative that deals in a special call is preceded by an admission of the speaker of his weakness. Jeremiah declared he was too young (Jer 1:6), Abraham that he was too old (Gen 17:17), and Moses that he could not speak well (Ex 4:10). Mary, on the other hand, says nothing of her unworthiness in any fashion. Even Isaiah who readily exclaimed “Here I am! Send me” recalled that he was a man of “unclean lips from a people of unclean lips.” Mary, however, not only accepts the word of God but finds herself fully capable from the outset of doing it. The angel says nothing of her unbelief. Rather, Mary asked and the answer was given to her because of her faith. She knew it was not to be done according to her knowledge but His word.
A Flemish painting of the announcement of a son for Abraham. He seems to be saying, "What? With her?" He laughed when God suggested it and thus his son was named "Issac" which roughly means "he laughs."

There are a wealth of examples I could bring up about the stark contrast of Mary to the rest of the holy men and women cataloged in Scripture, such as her name remaining the same despite the gravity of her task (contrary to Peter, Paul, Abraham, Israel, etc. whose names were changed). The question we must ask ourselves when contemplating Mary, her role, her importance, and her significance is “what does it mean?”

Was it arbitrary? For the believer to say such a thing about Scripture is foolishness. Much like Genesis, when we see that the argument is constructed like the others we are lulled into a false security and sense of familiarity. The account of Mary is not a polemic as such, but it is a theology-rich exposition (history). It is constructed like all the others in order to magnify the differences. As to the question “what does it mean,” which is a worthy question for each line of Scripture, she clearly meant a great deal to Luke. The early Church furnishes us with further reflection on Mary and what she meant to them. They were ready to call her the “New Eve” for if sin first entered the world through the disobedience of man and woman then it is only right that through the obedience and humility of a man (Jesus) and woman (Mary) that salvation was made available to all. Augustine expresses this sentiment in his book “On Christian Teaching,” albeit seemingly unfair to women, by saying “The disease [sin] entered through a corrupted female mind; healing emerged from and intact female body” (Book I.13.xxix).
There are too many great images that seem to me to relate Mary's purity in a way that only an image can convey.

For it is not our place to simply say our salvation is “through Christ alone” as if to say “nothing else matters.” Rather, it is better to wonder at “God chose that His only begotten son would be born of a woman and bear our entire human estate.” I do not diminish Christ's supreme and necessary role. What I am saying is that we must examine, marvel, pray, and give thanksgiving for how he chose to effect His grand designs. Where men are often moved by grandeur God chose to enter in all humility. Likewise, where many in Scripture wanted to control the situation they were in (and in the process doubt God) Mary became a perfect conduit of grace by virtue of her obedience and humility.

On this, the Holy Day of the Immaculate Conception I thought it would be worthy to devote some time to reflection on Mary most holy. There is far more to say than my meager words here. I only leave this with you to look at Mary as I see her (or perhaps as I'm beginning to see her). No other human being can claim to have known Christ in his full humanity or divinity than his mother who loved him with all the intensity of motherhood and suffered on account of his suffering more than anyone can comprehend. Woman is the crown of creation and Mary the queen of humanity. May her resplendent example lead us to Jesus Christ her son and to God almighty.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Mediation of the Saints 3: Walking Together

III. Walking Together, the Chosen Few

Last time we examined briefly how God uses and works with our desires. He works with our friends and enemies alike to effect His great wisdom. Now this can be hard to understand and it can make it seem like we play no part. Some feel that this makes God controlling or domineering while others feel they have no control or say. Below I will look at how the prophets worked with God, voluntarily, to bring about His will. That through their own acceptance of His will (though it was God's initiative and grace, always) they shared in it.

God sent his prophets to the people of Israel. God preferred them over others to spread His message by asking “Whom shall I send?” (Is 6:8). To Jeremiah He said “I place my words in your mouth” (Jer 1:9). To Ezekiel he said “Son of man, I am sending you … eat this scroll … and speak my words to them” (Ez 2:3, 3:1,4). It did not matter what rank or station. God formed a special relationship with a priest, one already a prophet, and a herdsman. “The Lord took me from following the flock, and said to me, 'Go and prophecy to my people Israel'” (Amos 7:15).

It should be noted that every prophet counted himself unworthy for the task God put before him. God, however, strengthened them by His Spirit. The inspiration he gave them was not a matter of replacing them with His own Body. It was not replacement but literally inspiration, a “breathing into.” The prophets did not lose their soul, mind, speech, or person. They were men who were deeply entrenched in the world they lived in and all of its evils. They were not transported to an ethereal realm but God met them where they were.

More powerfully still it is written: “Do two walk together unless they have agreed? … Indeed, the Lord God does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:3, 7). It pleased God to not merely use the prophets as a tool, nor does he use those faithful to him as a tool. Rather God asks us to walk with Him. He asks that we seek his voice, hear it, and respond. Each of the prophets believed, heard His voice, and were deeply moved by the presence of God. Then God asked them if they would go to his people and speak to them. God speaks through his prophets, but the prophets do not merely speak for God. They speak through God, rather God and the prophet speak together. The prophets stand in His presence (e.g., “Thus the Lord answered me [personally]: if you repent, that I restore you, in my presence you shall stand … you shall be my mouthpiece. Then it shall be they [Israel] that turns to you” (Jer 16:19)).

A prophet listens to the plight of God who looks upon the children that he loves. He sees them turning their backs to Him and instead preferring to sacrifice children to wood and stone. The prophet feels what God feels and cannot help but speak out. The prophet is so attuned to God's will that he acts clearly and directly. But not all men, even the holiest among them, experienced this. Only a select few were called. Some considered weak, faithless, and sinful. Some struggled and failed even after they were called. But God does not necessarily call the strong, the proud, or the sure. God called the Hebrews saying “It was not because you are the largest of all nations that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you, for you are really the smallest of all nations” (Deut 7:7). The same was true with the Apostles and prophets.

All of these men and others—holy men and women alike—were chosen by God to proclaim his word. They were men “of unclean lips in a people of unclean lips” (Is 6:5) and yet God selected them to deliver his message of repentance and reconciliation. He used our humble humanity and at times the wickedness of humanity to do His will. He effected his will through the agency of man. Some are willing while others are unknowing. God's hand directs them both. His kindness rests on those who turn to him.

Next time we will turn to the Resurrection of Jesus and his instruction to his Apostles. We see that the course of history changed at the coming of the Word but we see also that Christ continued the course God set from the beginning. That is to say that men and women from every generation would guide people to God in extraordinary ways. This was true in life and in eternal life, now afforded by the blood of Christ. Because Christ rose death now carried no sway over the souls of the faithful departed. The saints ran the race and so celebrated their victory over death. We will treat the Apostles and their successors and how they too are more than just a model but fully living and forever servants of God leading us to Him.