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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Pop-Culture for the Win!

Well... let's be honest, we will probably never actually mean that pop-culture is the "winning" side (at least in the spiritual sense). However, two examples, one of a song and the other of a movie, seemed to offer some good and appropriate reflection.

First, the song. It is a short clip of the lyrics from a very popular song, "Sigh No More" but the popular band, Mumford and Sons. They are:
Love it will not betray you,
Dismay or enslave you, 
It will set you free.
Be more like the man you were made to be.
There is a design, an alignment, 
A cry of my heart to see,
The beauty of love as it was made to be.

The second, a short clip from the recently released film The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey. [Sort of a spoiler so beware.] Bilbo speaks to the company of dwarves about their mission. He says something along the lines of (paraphrasing from memory):
"I have a home, and a warm bed, and food in my pantry, and the Shire. 
You do not. That is why I am going to help you." 

 The idea in both the lyrics of the song and the good will of Bilbo is that home is something that we are moving towards, that we long for, that we seek and search for. I have no intention of getting into the nature-grace debate here; I mean only to say that belonging and resting in something that we belong to is a desire that seems to come naturally to us, and to be shared in common by all people. 

In the lyrics, the idea of the heart being designed and aligned to seek the beauty of love is something that many people, when they pause to reflect on it, will understand and agree with. While the realistic side of us may remember that the world is fraught with suffering and that the love given by our fellow man can be shallow and imperfect, it does not change that whether we are people of faith or not, we often put our hope and trust in love itself, as a pure ideal of self-giving care for others, as a final end or perfect state. For those who do believe, we understand this to be an end in eternal beatitude with God, who is perfect love. 

Looking then at the words of Bilbo, we see someone who knows of his home, of his rest, in something that is good. He has found a place of peace and love where he belongs. Yet, he is so roused by encountering others who do not have such a place of peace and rest, that he will leave his own home to aid them in finding theirs! It is an easy analogy for the spiritual life, where the Christian who knows his end in God then turns to his fellow man who is searching for beauty, truth and goodness, and points him in the right direction. Moreover, he walks with him, assisting him on the path and remaining with him until they both reach that final end. 

This may not be what the average person gleans from listening to Mumford or from watching the Hobbit, but then, on the other hand, I think many people who might not be looking for a spiritual element or the Christian themes present will still understand those truths as they apply to every human heart. 

The Catechism says (356):
"Of all visible creatures only man is 'able to know and love his creator.' 
He is 'the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake,' 
 and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. 
It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity:  
What made you establish man in so great a dignity? 
Certainly the incalculable love by which you have looked on your creature in yourself! 
You are taken with love for her; for by love indeed you created her, 
by love you have given her a being capable of tasting your eternal Good."

Certainly, we require faith (and therefore, God's grace) to truly comprehend all of this, but we can also recall at a young age understanding the feelings of needing a home, of being drawn to the good and beautiful, of love being a safe harbor in the chaos of the world, etc... and these are human experiences that span all peoples in all cultures, because though they vary greatly, at the end of the day, they are united in the need for love to sustain us and for us to give love in return.

There are too many things that could be said about this and too many qualifications necessary, so let us just reflect on this: may we first recognize that it is God who has loved us first, who willed us into being and continues to will our existence even now. It is from Him that we receive life and grace, and the invitation to eternal life with him. It is for us to acknowledge and accept this love that is being offered to us, and to rejoice that we are so cherished! It is then for us to give the same love, as best we are able, in turn to our brothers and sisters, to our families and friends, to our coworkers and to the man or woman on the street. We will do better in our own walk towards eternal life if and when we offer to help the other person to get there too! What great mercy of the Lord would it be for us to arrive in heaven and be assured that we had assisted others in finding their home, too. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Baptist's Announcement

I have been reading through Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth (very slowly), and found myself opening up John 1:29 (John the Baptist's Testimony) in the New American Bible Revised Edition.

I felt compelled to share some of what struck me, as I feel it is especially appropriate for Advent, especially as we enter the Octave of Christmas. This is the text of John 1:29-34:

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and said, 
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.  
He is the one of whom I said, 
‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’ 
I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.” John testified further, saying, 
“I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him. I did not know him, 
but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, 
‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit.’  
Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” 

This event follows directly after John the Baptist has been questioned by Pharisees about his identity. When they push him for an explanation of who he is, his reply is "I am 'the voice of one crying out in the desert, "Make straight the way of the Lord,"' as Isaiah the prophet said" (Jn 1:23). The verse of Isaiah to which he refers is Isaiah 40:3, which reads, "A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord."

John further replies to them, "I baptize with water, but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie" (Jn 1:26-27). 

It is hard to imagine this scene without over dramatizing it, and yet, it is a very dramatic experience. Here is one who is wondered at, and is seen as an enigma; so much so, that the leaders of the community send men to discover exactly who John is. And John's reply is not one of self-proclamation, as perhaps they had anticipated. He speaks of himself only in reference to the one who is to come. He presents himself as a herald, as one who is to testify. 

Therefore, we read that the next day Jesus comes to John, and John announces that he is the "Lamb of God," the one whom the Spirit descended upon. Yet, John says he does not know Jesus, but that it was the sign of the Spirit remaining with Jesus that is the revelation that he is the Son of God. And John testifies to the revelation of the Blessed Trinity!

One of the footnotes from this section reads: "Remain: the first use of a favorite verb in John, emphasizing the permanency of the relationship between the Father and the Son (as here) and between the Son and the Christian. Jesus is the permanent bearer of the Spirit."

John has come baptizing with water that the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit may be made known; his life is to be a witness, to testify to the identity of Jesus, and to the revelation of the Trinity. 

Here we come to see something so imperative - the nature of communion that is the life of the Trinity, the love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is the very life into which we are called to and made part of in our own Baptism. We are not actually part of Triune God, of course, but we are made "'a new creature,' an adopted son of God, who has become a 'partaker of the divine nature,' member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit" (CCC 1265). This is not only a gift of grace at one moment or for one experience, but it is one that remains with us throughout life, as an indelible mark on the soul (CCC 1272). Therefore, just as John proclaims and testifies that Jesus is the Son by his witnessing of the Holy Spirit remaining with Christ, so others may similarly recognize us as disciples and adopted children of God if and when they recognize that we remain in Christ and that the Holy Spirit remains with us. 

This simple prayer by Cardinal Mercier is part of his "Secret to Sanctity": 

O Holy Spirit, Soul of my soul, I adore You. 
Enlighten, guide, strengthen and console me. 
Tell me what I ought to do and command me to do it. 
I promise to be submissive in everything that You permit to happen to me, 
only show me what is Your will.

Cardinal Mercier explained this prayer by saying: "I am going to reveal to you a secret of sanctity and happiness. If every day during five minutes, you will keep your imagination quiet, shut your eyes to all things of sense, and close your ears to all the sounds of earth, so as to be able to withdraw into the sanctuary of your baptized soul, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit, speaking there to that Holy Spirit saying: "O Holy Spirit, Soul of my soul …" If you do this, your life will pass happily and serenely. Consolation will abound even in the midst of troubles. Grace will be given in proportion to the trial as well as strength to bear it, bringing you to the gates of Paradise full of merit. The submission to the Holy Spirit is the Secret of Sanctity."

I believe this is so pertinent to the setting that we find John the Baptist in when he is able to make his testimony to the identity of Jesus Christ - the desert. 

We all know the continual challenge to retreat from the chaos and endless tasks of daily life to find some time for sincere and heartfelt prayer, but how much more necessary is it to do so when we are being further challenged to testify to Christ before the world. It may not seem so imperative for ourselves to find peace or to strengthen our knowledge of God, but perhaps the fire of proclaiming him to those who are in need of the freedom and truth of the Gospel is enough to push us into the desert. We cannot testify if we do not remain with the Lord, and he with us. Scripture repeatedly promises us that God will never abandon us, but it also reminds us that we often abandon the Lord. We must first place ourselves in the desert where we can clearly see the Holy Spirit's work; where we can authentically recognize Jesus Christ; where we can know of the Father's love. Only when we are saturated in the truth of God's revelation of his love can we then go and testify that what we have come to know and love is life-giving, and is for all.

The Year of Faith is a call to us all to breath again: to be born again. It is a call to rebirth and renewal. It is a reminder that no relationship grows without work, and nothing that is valuable comes easy. It is a mandate, really, to the baptized soul, to repeat in the utmost sincerety his or her baptismal promises:

V. Do you reject Satan?
R. I do.
V. And all his works?
R. I do.
V. And all his empty promises?
R. I do.
V. Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth?
R. I do.
V. Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?
R. I do.
V. Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?
R. I do.
V. God, the all-powerful Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has given us a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and forgiven all our sins. May he also keep us faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ for ever and ever.
R. Amen.
If we know that we believe and profess the truth, and that the truth has set us free, and that in the truth we have the hope of eternal life, how can we not testify to the truth? As imitators of Christ, who answered Pilot saying, "For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth" (Jn 18:37), we must similarly reply to the world in all of its hardships and heart aches and sufferings and darkness, that we testify to the truth; that we remain with the truth - that the truth is Jesus Christ, and it is he who takes away the sins of the world. 
Let us pray that these last days of Advent be a time for us to renew our knowledge of Christ, that we might more readily announce him in this world, and give testimony to his love and mercy. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to be with us, to remain with us, that we might better imitate our Lord.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Advent of Faith

(Adoration of the Shepherds- van Honthorst, 1622)

When the angels went away from them to heaven,
the shepherds said to one another,
"Let us go, then, to Bethlehem
to see this thing that has taken place,
which the Lord has made known to us."
So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph,
and the infant lying in the manger.
When they saw this,
they made known the message
that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed
by what had been told them by the shepherds.
And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned,
glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen,
just as it had been told to them.

- Lk 2:15-20

There is much that can be said about the short verse, "And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart." There is much that has been said about that verse.

Yet, I believe it does call for further reflection, or perhaps it is better stated, ongoing reflection, considering that the Blessed Mother is indeed our prime example and model for how we are to anticipate the birth and coming of Our Lord.

For some, Advent can be a more "joyous" occasion, as is witnessed by the shepherds in the Gospel. What then, of Mary's reaction? Is it not in contrast to the "glorifying and praising" of the shepherds? Perhaps it seems hard to interpret the account in any other way, but I believe it is not in adherence with the whole truth of the faith to argue that Mary was not joyous, or not "glorifying and praising" - certainly, she must have been the most joyous and grateful of all! St. Louis de Montfort includes in his reflection on Mary during the twenty-third day of preparation to Consecration to Our Lady that she is "the most grateful of creatures."

What, then, is to be understood of this quiet and internal reflection?

First, I would consider that there is a contrast made between proclamation and reflection, though not in the negative. Consider how the message passes on; it is the angels who declare this good news, this divine revelation, that Christ is born; it is then the shepherds who carry this great news with them, and recount what they have been told; it is then "all who heard" their message that are amazed, and the shepherds who continue to go forth to announce the good news. However, Mary, the Mother of Christ, reflects on these things in her heart.

One observation that can be made is that Our Lady already knew that the Son she gave birth to was Christ! Mary has been told by the angel who announces to her that she is "blessed among women" that she will be the Mother of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. She has lived with the Word of God growing in her womb for nine months. This is not to say that it diminishes her joy or zeal or gratitude for the truth, but rather, that the truth takes root in her heart in a way that is more mature than those who have just heard the good news.

Christ gives us the parable of the seed that falls on various types of ground, and therefore either takes root and grows to bear fruit, or is killed by various failures in the seed taking root and growing. In Our Lady, the seed that was planted was placed in such fertile soil that the fruit that was borne was literally and physically the Word of God! There can be no better or more realistic example than the Blessed Mother for what it means to allow the seed, the Word, to be planted and to grow within us.

Therefore, the contrast that is seen in this account from Saint Luke is an example of the first proclamation of the Word, of the first hearing of the Gospel, with what it is to take the Word into one's heart, into one's very life, and to allow it to grow and bear fruit that will remain. The Blessed Mother has, dramatically, announced the Good News - she has brought Christ into the world in the most literal way that has ever been! From that point on, the proclamation of the Good News is the work of Christ and the Church, the Church always in imitation of Our Lady, who is the exemplar evangelist in her life of faith that brought forth Christ in the world.

What does this mean for us, who desire to rejoice and proclaim the Good News, but who also may have heard the Gospel many times? If this is not our first invitation to know, love and serve Christ, and if we are familiar with the message of salvation given to all men, how do we respond to the re-proclamation of the Gospel?

The answer is of course, a both-and, a two-fold course. We must then practice what it is the be the maturing Christian and the newly-evangelized; we must be (what we are in reality) the saint and the sinner. We must be the penitent, who turns to the Sacraments often, especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist, and who prays daily for personal conversion. We must be the maturing Christian who studies the Word of God and seeks to know Christ more, day to day. We must be the person who is re-affected by the truth; who finds that internal fire is burning first and foremost for our own improvement - for a greater charity in all things - and then for the sharing of the truth with others.

As Pope Paul VI so astutely wrote, "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses" (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41). This is a summation of the both-and practice that is proper to the one who is re-affected, re-evangelized, by hearing the proclamation of the Good News once again! The practice must be that the man who has known Christ, but who once again meets him on the road, finds his heart turned once more; turned to the light, which somehow had become obscured, turned to the path, which had somehow veered on a different course, turned to the life, which had somehow been forgotten in the smoke of our world. We must be reoriented! Realigned. Through conversion, we become better witnesses, for our lives begin to reflect the truth we profess; through announcement and profession, we give a reason for the conversion we live. 

Modern man cannot live on only emotional, feel-good stories of how God has blessed us; nor can he live only on deep theological doctrine which has no practical demonstration to him: how can anyone come to love a person enough that they would desire to love them for their entire lives, if they know only what he thinks or only what he does? It will not happen. Man must be presented with both the reality that Jesus Christ has been born into our world, true God and true man, the Savior of the world, and with the truth that it is in knowing, serving, and loving Jesus Christ, in conforming to his Gospel and in living as his disciple, that we made children of God. 

Pope Benedict XVI has said that "it is not possible to speak of the New Evangelization without 'a sincere desire for conversion'" (Zenit). Let us then, with Mary as our model, recall in our own lives how we have already been given the Good News, how we have already heard the message of Salvation, which should stir up in us great joy, great gratitude, and the zeal to proclaim such mercy to the whole world - and yet, recall that this proclamation begins first with our own turning back to Christ, so that we will be authentic witnesses to the truth that we share.