Renaming the Feast

And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us..

On the 25th of March, we observed the solemn feast of the Annunciation.

Somehow, for as long as I can remember, I have only thought of this date as the feast of the of the Incarnation.  (Please blame my language teachers for my being picky about words.)

Certainly, observing the feast as Annunciation is of great importance. The Gospel for Mass on that day is taken from Luke and recounts the stunning appearance of the angel Gabriel to the young and holy maiden Mary. He does indeed make an announcement to her, hence Annunciation. What he announces is that she will conceive and bear a son who will be called Son of the Most High. The church has consistently taught that Mary’s “Yes” was required, though clearly Gabriel did not ask a question but made a statement to which she consented. And we thank God that she did.

Yet, we bow during the Creed as we assent to the Word made flesh, and not to the announcement. And though both occur at practically the same moment, there is a difference.

So what’s the issue?

Simply that it seems to me that the event is more important than the announcement of it. Just as being at a winning game is better than reading about it later. And what is the Event?

The Incarnation is as astonishing an event as the Resurrection. Naming the feast Incarnation  emphasizes how deep is God’s love, that He would join the human race and become one of us in the flesh.

Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, God is always described as working side by side with his people, present with them through hardships: hunger, foreign domination, slavery, floods, and all manner of evils as well as successes. But never is God seen or heard except under cover, so to speak, as in a cloud or in a soft whispering sound. Then, in the fullness of time, Jesus was born humanly into the world as the son of Mary and Son of God so that we could witness him with our own eyes and ears.

The enfleshment of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is a phenomenal event and a deep mystery. We can easily understand God’s enduring spiritual presence with the chosen people, but that he should become one of us? That he would live like us? Be tired like us? Work at a job like us? Deal with difficult people like us? Be rejected like us? Indeed. Like us in all ways except sin.

St. Athanasius (d. 373 AD) is famously quoted for having given us the reason for the Incarnation: “God became man so that man might become god.”  Another astounding statement! We are told, however, that whereas Jesus is God by nature, we are enabled to become “god” or “god-like” by participation. By our relationship to God through Jesus our Brother and with the grace-filled help of the Holy Spirit, we become children of God.

By his example Jesus taught us how to be reborn in the spirit as children of God and as God’s image here on earth. He refers to God as our Father — his and mine and yours. His teachings and example show us how we can enter the Kingdom of God — partially now, fully in the next life. Christ tells us to be holy as our heavenly Father is holy. He constantly strives to quiet our fears and guilty feelings about not being good enough to be called God’s children, when this is exactly why God made us in the first place.

With all due respect, I feel bound to put the fact of the Incarnation in first place over Gabriel’s Announcement. John’s first letter emphasizes the reality of God’s Son becoming human and our status as God’s children. As I gave John the first word in this meditation, I also give him the last. (1 John 1:1; 3:2)

“The Word was made flesh.
What was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we looked upon
and touched with our hands
concerns the Word of life. …
 “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  

Hymn to the Word Incarnate, by Gabriel Fauré
Poem by Jean Racine, trans. RPK

O Word, equal to the Almighty, our only hope,
Eternal day of both Earth and Heaven;
We break the silence of this peaceful night:
Divine Saviour, cast your gaze on us!

Spread over us the fire of your mighty grace
So that all Hell might flee, hearing your voice.
Awaken the sleep of this languishing soul
Which so easily forgets your laws!

O Christ, be kind to your faithful people
Now gathered to bless you.
Welcome the hymns we offer to your immortal glory,
And may they return to us, filled with your grace!

Ash Wednesday

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
         T. S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”

A few weeks ago the Mass readings were taken from Genesis. It told the familiar creation story, ending with what was to have been the crown of creation: Adam and Eve. Then came the problems: disobedience, expulsion from paradise, and punishment. Husband, wife and heirs would have their labors increased and intensified.

Imagine my chagrin to read this new translation in my missal:

          You are dirt, and to dirt you shall return.

Given the context of “dirt” for modern American-English speakers, I was quite put off by a translation which comes across as a profound insult. For this “dirt,” our human flesh, is after all the same material that Jesus Christ took upon himself to become one with us. Without his humanity we would not be able to join in his sacred divinity. We could not become children of his heavenly Father. The Spirit could never find traction in us.

When we begin our Lent this week, reminded of our mortality by ashes in the form of a cross on our forehead, we will be called to a sincere conversion of life and the certain mercy of God, now possible because of Christ coming to us in full humanity.

Rend your hearts, not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is  gracious and merciful, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.      (Joel 2:12-13)

Many of us still think of Lent as a time of giving up “stuff” such as chocolate or other treats. What God asks us to give up is the hard heart that separates us from the will of God, from the love of Christ, and from love for one another.

I pray for the strength to give up the sharp response. I pray to give up the desire to have all the answers. I pray that Christ will see me as one of many Christians who truly follow him in the pursuit of goodness and peace.

You do not ask for sacrifice and offerings, but an open ear.
You do not ask for holocaust and victim.

Instead, here am I!                (Psalm 40:7-8a)
                                        +          +          +

Teach us to care: teach us to seek first and with all our hearts the Kingdom of Heaven.

. . .and not to care: Teach us to know that our efforts, with God’s grace, will never descend into anxiety, much less despair.

Teach us to sit still: teach us to trust in our caring Father.

Each Lenten season offers a chance like none other in our lifetime. St. Paul urges us to seize this opportunity now, to accept God’s mercy now and to pass it on to others.

Behold, now is a very acceptable time; now is the day of salvation!     (2 Corinthians 6:2)

 

ash-wednesday

St. Paul: Conversion and Transformation

This past week we celebrated the feast of St. Paul’s conversion. This was truly an astonishing event which ultimately led to the conversion of uncountable numbers of people over the last 2000 years. We honor and thank St. Paul for his responding to God’s great gift to him that opened the path of holiness to nations outside of Israel.

Maybe you and I wonder why God would choose this man for such an extraordinary mission. For this same man, first known as Saul, not only witnessed but approved of the execution of St. Stephen, ardent follower and defendant of the “Nazarene”, and celebrated as the first Christian martyr: Now Saul was consenting to [Stephen’s] execution. (Acts 8:1)

Furthermore, Saul was a ruthless man who breathed murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord (Acts 9:1). He was on his way to Damascus to ferret out men and women of “The Way” and bring them back in chains to be immediately dispatched. What could possibly change the heart of this merciless man? Such a radical turnaround leaves us gaping with astonishment.

Now, I’m not surprised that God can do all things, even to the point of converting this bloodthirsty man, but why would he choose an outspoken enemy of Christ for a mission totally different from his cruel ways? Why didn’t he choose someone like gentle Stephen who was so good, and who taught Christ with such staunch devotion?

In short, why doesn’t God do things the way I would do them???

Here’s my theory. God, who knows us through and through, knew very well the temperament he gave Paul. Ruthless? Yes. But once touched by the divine hand, once he literally saw the light, that ruthlessness was transformed into a relentless zeal. To be apostle to the gentiles, to face and persuade total strangers, required this kind of radical and unstoppable ardor. In one direction, it was used for intolerance and cruelty. In the other, it was used for conversion to a Way of love.

This is at the crux of how God creates. He gives us by birth and culture exactly what he wants us to have. He then subtly but persistently draws us to opportunities where, in our free will, we can use those gifts either to come closer to him, or to ignore his invitations and use our talents for worthless – even evil – purposes. We are given many enticements to good in the course of our life but only hear them if we’re open and willing to listen.

I often hear people bemoan some aspects of their temperament. I’m too this; I’m not enough that. As if God is a shoddy workman! It’s not a case of our too-muchness or not-enoughness, but rather that we haven’t yet learned to use our unique gifts for the love of God and service to his people, our neighbor.

conversion-of-pauThat brilliantly blinding flash of light Paul experienced was Christ’s irresistible invitation. Christ spoke to Paul not cursing or condemning him, but asking him what he was about, and why. Ironically, Paul’s spiritual blindness had preceded his physical blindness. All it took was one personal experience with Christ to wake him up to a different, loving, and dedicated way of life.

Paul’s letters overflow with his passionate love for Christ: how Christ is truly within us, how he rescues us from a life of selfishness. Paul became all things to all men, recognizing that  gentiles needed and would welcome the Christian Way, even though they had lived so differently from the chosen people. His new powers of vision saw how the love of Christ extends over all kinds of people, and how ripe was the harvest. Without Paul’s “ruthless” persistence enduring shipwrecks, imprisonments, beatings, and disgrace, we would not be writing or reading of his miraculous conversion today.

Because of St. Paul’s conversion we know that even our most seemingly unlovable traits can be transformed into a loving service to Christ. All we need to do is listen.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas is a time that invites nostalgia.
These thoughts come from a Christmas past, shortly after my return to the Faith.

nativityOne of the blessings of having reached a certain age is the ability to look back at the many twists and turns of one’s life. At this holy season of Christmas and especially on this holy day celebrating Christ’s birth, a number of memories fill my mind.

I see myself in a classroom, dressed as an angel – complete with halo – waiting to be called to sing onstage for the grand finale of the Christmas pageant. I fast forward many years to a time where I am directing my four children in decorating Christmas stockings that I’ve sewn. They each choose a liturgical scene appropriate to the season. Or I’m in the kitchen with trays of cut-out cookies that my children “paint” with colored egg yolk. Or I’m in the living room, fragrant with fresh pine, filled with the happy mess of toys.

But none of these Christmases has had the joy of the feast this year.

Many Christmases were spent in distress, in spiritual and personal trials, while love – true  love that is of God – eluded me. Nothing is so empty as the heart that has lost God.

But God does not want to remain lost. In spite of ourselves, he gently pursues us, woos us, seduces us, and sweetly captures us at last.

This year, I have been tutored in the spiritual joys of the holiday. This year, I have been given a deeper grasp of the marvel of Christmas: the gift of Christ Himself.

Christ who came to teach us what true happiness consists of.
Christ in whom all good things exist in a visible, tangible way.
Christ in whom all things were made, and to whom all things ultimately tend.

Christ. The one Word that speaks all to us.
The one Word that contains all that is good:
love, holiness, mercy, compassion, generosity,
forgiveness, kindness, enlightenment, joy, wisdom,
love again,
and yet more love.

And the greatest marvel of all is that he did not come just once at a moment in history that is forever gone. He comes in an unending presence to fill and transform our spirits and, through us, to fill and transform the world. He will never again be absent from our life. While we await a second coming, he is nevertheless here.

christmas-message

Gallery of Photos taken in the Holy Land.

Terrain outside of Bethlehem
Terrain outside of Bethlehem
Church of the Nativity
Church of the Nativity
Christ Child image below altar, Church of the Nativity
Christ Child image below altar, Church of the Nativity
14-point star, signifying generations of families of the House of David
Revered as the site of Jesus’ birth. 14-point star, signifying generations of families from the House of David
Crypt, Church of the Nativity, where St. Jerome lived while translating the Bible
Crypt in the Church of the Nativity, where St. Jerome lived while translating the Bible
“In this place was once St. Jerome, priest and doctor of the Church”

An Unlikely Saint

Though it wasn’t planned that way, I find it particularly apt that the Gospel story of Zacchaeus should have been scheduled close to the celebration of All Saints.

Luke tells us that Jesus was on the road. Jericho was not a stopping point; he had only intended to pass through. Nonetheless, he had attracted a large crowd of residents – among them one of the most hated: the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus. An unexplained curiosity possessed Zacchaeus to try to see this Man of miracles.

Being “short in stature” like Zacchaeus, I know how it is to try to see anything of a parade. Impossible! No one would want to clear a path for this despised man. They would sooner trample over him than make a space for him to see the miracle-worker.

So Zacchaeus improvised.

A grove of sycamore trees was slightly off the path. Since sycamores in that part of the world are rather small, Zacchaeus was able to climb up quite easily to a branch which would give him a good view of the whole event.zacchaeus

The crowd approaches. How does Jesus happen to spot Zacchaeus? My version is that someone in the crowd eyed him perched on a branch and, thinking he looked quite ridiculous, mockingly pointed him out to others in the throng. What thoughts might have entered Zacchaeus’ mind? A rush of shame, possibly, that here he was – wealthy beyond anyone else in this motley crew, but despised and rejected, made out to be a total fool in the presence of this renowned Person.

Instead of joining in the mob’s disdain, Jesus looks up. (Jesus always looks up and beyond our earthbound view.) Jesus calls to Zacchaeus and boldly invites himself to spend the night at this sinner’s home.

Everyone else, the “good” people who do everything right, they’re all irate that this liar, cheat and extortionist, should be the one to be honored. Was this Galilean really a prophet? Then he wouldn’t have wanted to enter the home of a sinner — or would he?

Zacchaeus joyfully scrambles down, instantly converted to full atonement and gratitude. Zacchaeus, like you and me, has been invited to holiness. It’s totally unexpected, totally undeserved. Unlike the righteous many, Jesus does not refer to Zacchaeus as a sinner but as someone lost. Mercy flows so easily, so happily, from Jesus, and into the unlikeliest of persons!

And so does Christ view us. He calls us to his level. He boldly invites himself to enter our home, to be one with us. Once we have enjoyed his companionship, other associations or attachments that lead us away from him are cheerfully abandoned. How can they compare?

This Gospel is the story of all the other saints besides Zacchaeus who are celebrated this week. They all started out as sinners.

Where do I see myself in this picture?