Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Love and Truth of the Word Become Flesh

Christmas Message of Pope Benedict XVI
Urbi et Orbi (to the city of Rome and the world)
December 25, 2010

"Verbum caro factum est" – "The Word became flesh" (Jn 1:14).

Dear brothers and sisters listening to me here in Rome and throughout the world, I joyfully proclaim the message of Christmas: God became man; He came to dwell among us. God is not distant: He is "Emmanuel," God-with-us. He is no stranger: He has a face, the face of Jesus.

This message is ever new, ever surprising, for it surpasses even our most daring hope. First of all, because it is not merely a proclamation: it is an event, a happening, which credible witnesses saw, heard and touched in the person of Jesus of Nazareth! Being in His presence, observing His works and hearing His words, they recognized in Jesus the Messiah; and seeing Him risen, after His crucifixion, they were certain that He was true man and true God, the only-begotten Son come from the Father, full of grace and truth (cf. Jn 1:14).

"The Word became flesh." Before this revelation we once more wonder: how can this be? The Word and the flesh are mutually opposed realities; how can the eternal and almighty Word become a frail and mortal man?

There is only one answer: Love. Those who love desire to share with the beloved, they want to be one with the beloved, and Sacred Scripture shows us the great love story of God for His people which culminated in Jesus Christ.

God in fact does not change: He is faithful to Himself. He who created the world is the same one who called Abraham and revealed His name to Moses: "I am who I am . . . the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob . . . a God merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (cf. Ex 3:14-15; 34:6).

God does not change; He is Love, ever and always. In Himself He is communion, unity in Trinity, and all His words and works are directed to communion. The Incarnation is the culmination of creation. When Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, was formed in the womb of Mary by the will of the Father and the working of the Holy Spirit, creation reached its high point. The ordering principle of the universe, the Logos, began to exist in the world, in a certain time and space.

"The Word became flesh." The light of this truth is revealed to those who receive it in faith, for it is a mystery of love. Only those who are open to love are enveloped in the light of Christmas. So it was on that night in Bethlehem, and so it is today.

The Incarnation of the Son of God is an event which occurred within history, while at the same time transcending history. In the night of the world a new light was kindled, one which lets itself be seen by the simple eyes of faith, by the meek and humble hearts of those who await the Saviour. If the truth were a mere mathematical formula, in some sense it would impose itself by its own power. But if Truth is Love, it calls for faith, for the "yes" of our hearts.

And what do our hearts, in effect, seek, if not a Truth which is also Love? Children seek it with their questions, so disarming and stimulating; young people seek it in their eagerness to discover the deepest meaning of their life; adults seek it in order to guide and sustain their commitments in the family and the workplace; the elderly seek it in order to grant completion to their earthly existence.

"The Word became flesh." The proclamation of Christmas is also a light for all peoples, for the collective journey of humanity. "Emmanuel," God-with-us, has come as King of justice and peace. We know that His Kingdom is not of this world, and yet it is more important than all the kingdoms of this world. It is like the leaven of humanity: were it lacking, the energy to work for true development would flag: the impulse to work together for the common good, in the disinterested service of our neighbour, in the peaceful struggle for justice. Belief in the God who desired to share in our history constantly encourages us in our own commitment to that history, for all its contradictions. It is a source of hope for everyone whose dignity is offended and violated, since the one born in Bethlehem came to set every man and woman free from the source of all enslavement.

May the light of Christmas shine forth anew in the Land where Jesus was born, and inspire Israelis and Palestinians to strive for a just and peaceful coexistence. May the comforting message of the coming of Emmanuel ease the pain and bring consolation amid their trials to the beloved Christian communities in Iraq and throughout the Middle East; may it bring them comfort and hope for the future and bring the leaders of nations to show them effective solidarity. May it also be so for those in Haiti who still suffer in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and the recent cholera epidemic. May the same hold true not only for those in Colombia and Venezuela, but also in Guatemala and Costa Rica, who recently suffered natural disasters.

May the birth of the Savior open horizons of lasting peace and authentic progress for the peoples of Somalia, Darfur and Côte d’Ivoire; may it promote political and social stability in Madagascar; may it bring security and respect for human rights in Afghanistan and in Pakistan; may it encourage dialogue between Nicaragua and Costa Rica; and may it advance reconciliation on the Korean peninsula.

May the birth of the Savior strengthen the spirit of faith, patience and courage of the faithful of the Church in mainland China, that they may not lose heart through the limitations imposed on their freedom of religion and conscience but, persevering in fidelity to Christ and His Church, may keep alive the flame of hope. May the love of "God-with-us" grant perseverance to all those Christian communities enduring discrimination and persecution, and inspire political and religious leaders to be committed to full respect for the religious freedom of all.

Dear brothers and sisters, "the Word became flesh"; He came to dwell among us; He is Emmanuel, the God who became close to us. Together let us contemplate this great mystery of love; let our hearts be filled with the light which shines in the stable of Bethlehem!

To everyone, a Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas and the Cross

On December 25, the world celebrates the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ -- Christmas Day.

Why is Christmas on December 25? Do we really know that that is the day when Jesus was born?

It turns out that the fixing of Christmas Day on December 25 is not an arbitrary decision, nor is it based on the widespread modern belief that the date was picked in order to displace the celebration of a pagan festival on that date. Rather, the date of Jesus' birth was determined by reference to Jesus' conception which, in turn, was calculated by determining His crucifixion and death.

Now, if you subtract nine months from December 25, you get March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord. On that day, the Church reflects upon Mary's fiat, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done unto me acccording to your word," and upon the Incarnation, the mystery of God coming down from heaven and merging Himself with Man, making Himself small and becoming flesh in the temple and virgin womb of Mary the Immaculate.

So, the question presents itself --
Why do we celebrate the Annunciation on March 25?

Well, that date was fixed in ancient tradition and it is based upon a widespread belief in Judaism at the time of Christ that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception. By the time of Tertullian, scholars researching the various dates of Passover had concluded that Jesus died on the Cross on March 25. Wrote St. Augustine,
"He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since." (On the Trinity, Book IV, Chapter 5).
Additionally, some Jewish scholars had calculated that the date of Creation was March 25, and it made sense to believe that, since a new creation began upon the Incarnation, Jesus was conceived on the same day as the first creation.

Hence, the tradition arose that, because He was crucified on March 25 and the universe was created on that date, Jesus was conceived on March 25. The day that Mary took her Son's Body into her arms beneath the Cross is the same day that she had taken His Body into her womb at the Annunciation.

And if you add nine months to the date of conception, March 25, you get . . . December 25, Christmas Day.


See also: Andrew McGowan, How December 25 Became Christmas
William J. Tighe, Calculating Christmas

Friday, December 17, 2010

Santa Claus and Children

Over at Conversion Diary, the always great Jennifer Fulwiler asks the Santa Clause question.

Guilty confession: We do Santa at our house, but I have misgivings about it. In theory, I think it’s a great tradition. . . . I’m trying to like Santa here. But in practice it just feels kind of weird. On the one hand, I don’t want to associate Santa too closely with Jesus, since, well, one is more real than the other. On the other hand, it’s a constant battle not to let the guy with the shiny gifts overshadow the humble baby in the manger. As much as I try to emphasize Santa as Jesus’ helper, a Christian saint, etc. the pop culture images of him as THE AWESOME DUDE WITH THE INFINITE GIFT-GIVING POWER seem to trump in my children’s collective subconscious.

There are many good comments regarding children and Santa Claus. One mother pointed out a danger about Santa, when her daughter told her, "you told us the Tooth Fairy and Santa were real, and they’re not. So, it’s hard for me to believe God is real.” I responded,

Santa is real, just as God is real. But one is metaphor and the other is the real deal.

Properly understood, “Santa” is not the commercialized guy of the materialistic modern world, but is instead an icon of the Son of God Himself and, hence, a model for us.

Another comment said, "My husband said yesterday, 'This whole debate is crazy. No one is LYING. Santa IS real. He’s a mythical character who represents the spirit of anonymous giving.' Pretty wise, I thought." In response, I wrote,

This is largely right. A better word would be metaphorical or symbolic, rather than mythical.

“Santa Claus” is indeed real — he is representative of the giving and joy that we are each called to, and which originates in God giving Himself to us on Christmas morning.

The only problem is in not locking yourself in by presenting Santa in such a fashion that one cannot then later explain exactly who “Santa” is. Yes, he was an actual real historical person by the name of Nicholas. And the clothes that he wears (red suit, white lining) are the real historical clothes worn by bishops. But the “Santa” of today is you and me. Santa is us, who are called to give to others.

Thus, it is probably wise, when kids see all the various “Santas” at the mall, to explain that that is not really Santa, but “Santa’s helper.” That can bridge the gap to later telling the children that “Santa” is symbolic, that the real Santa is each of us and, more importantly, that they are Santa too, they are called to self-giving.

Maybe this is where the Easter Bunny can play an invaluable service.

Like Santa, the Easter Bunny is filled with Christian symbolism. But, generally, it is rather transparent that the "Easter Bunny" is mom and dad, what with him leaving the very same eggs that the kids were painting a couple of days before. Nevertheless, there is, in the Easter Bunny, that symbolism and message of giving (even if it is the giving of eggs and candy). And if kids can "believe" in the Easter Bunny without having a crisis of faith, knowing that it is really just fun and games, that he is really mom and dad, perhaps the example of the Easter Bunny can be used to later explain how Santa is really representative of Jesus and us.

If done right, parents can avoid the two extremes of teaching fantasy and lies to children on the one hand and being a grumpy wet-blanket Grinch on the other. Fostering a belief in "Santa Claus" can be a teaching tool if carefully done, a tool that leads children to Christ and His call to love one another.


See also The Real Saint Nicholas

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Immaculate Mary, Virgin Mother of God, Daughter of Her Son

Here is a piece that I wrote as a guest contributor for the blog Runs With Angels . . . Lives With Saints --

Today is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.

The question immediately arises -- What is the "Immaculate Conception"?
Very simply, the doctrine states that the Blessed Virgin Mary is the “New Eve,” who was redeemed and given the life of the fullness of grace from the first moment of her existence, such that she was preserved from Original Sin at her conception. And, as noted in the prior posting on the Assumption of Mary, each of the four Marian doctrines are interrelated.

Why should Mary have been immaculately conceived?
When he appears to Mary, the angel calls her "Full of Grace," as if that were her name. "Full of grace" describes not only who she is, but what she is. It was the fullness of grace that gave Mary the total freedom, unimpaired by the errors of sin, to say “yes” to God, in the fullness of her being, at the Annunciation and throughout her life. In this way, Mary could be a proper and pure “living temple” for the Son of God in her womb. “She is the living house of God, who does not dwell in buildings of stone but in the heart of living man,” says Pope Benedict XVI. Moreover, in Jesus, God literally merged into mankind, becoming small, defenseless, and vulnerable while dwelling within the Virgin Mary’s womb, in the most intimate of relationships. Just as the first Eve was formed out of the first Adam, so Jesus, Son of God and the new Adam, was formed out of the new Eve, flesh of her flesh, bone of her bone. So, Jesus being the Lord, like us in all ways except sin, it was necessary that His flesh be pure and without the stain of sin.

An objection is raised by some Protestants that this somehow equates Mary to God and is a denial of the truth that we can be saved only by and through Jesus Christ. However, such objections do not understand the doctrine, which states that the grace won by Christ on the Cross was applied to Mary in anticipation of this saving event.

But how could Mary be saved by Jesus if He wasn't even born yet when she was conceived and the Crucifixion and Resurrection did not happen until about 45-50 years after that?

Although it would be impossible to gain the benefit of something before it existed in time from a human perspective, we must remember that God is eternal.

For us humans, time is linear, with a before, present, and future. But time is not linear for Jesus Christ, rather, He is eternal, all moments in time exist simultaneously, and each moment endures in perpetuity. Thus, at Mass, the sacrifice of Jesus that we celebrate is not something that happened 2000 years ago, but is happening right now, in the present. He is forever on the Cross, forever rising from the dead. And, just as that saving event extends "forward in time" for us, so too does it extend "backward in time" for Mary. Jesus is eternal, so when Mary was conceived, the Crucifixion and Resurrection were happening for Him.

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception, like all of the Marian doctrines, really says more about Jesus than it does about Mary herself. That is because, in all things, just as when she said at Cana, "do whatever He says," Mary always points us toward her Son.

But, at the same time, Mary also points towards ourselves. Or, more accurately, she points us to the people that God intended and intends for us to be. She is the "new Eve," the new mother of all of those who are truly living, that is, those who have eternal life. Just as her bodily assumption into heaven anticipates the resurrection of the body of all of the faithful, even if we ourselves will not be bodily assumed into heaven, so too does her immaculate conception anticipate our own "conception" into eternal life, a life full of grace in communion with He who is Love and Truth.

Although the faithful have professed a belief in the Immaculate Conception since the earliest days of the Church, and it has long been a feast day on the Church calendar, still it was not until 1854 that the doctrine was "formally" stated. That the dogma was not declared until that late date does not mean that it is a new teaching, to the contrary, it is because it has been the understanding and belief of the Church throughout the millenia that it could be formally ratified as doctrine.

Ineffabilis Deus
Apostolic Constitution on the Immaculate Conception

His Holiness Pope Pius IX, December 8, 1854

From the very beginning, and before time began, the eternal Father chose and prepared for his only-begotten Son, a Mother in whom the Son of God would become incarnate and from whom, in the blessed fullness of time, he would be born into this world. Above all creatures did God so love her that truly in her was the Father well pleased with singular delight. Therefore, far above all the angels and all the saints so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of his divinity that this mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which, outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully. . . .

The Catholic Church, directed by the Holy Spirit of God, is the pillar and base of truth and has ever held as divinely revealed and as contained in the deposit of heavenly revelation this doctrine concerning the original innocence of the august Virgin -- a doctrine which is so perfectly in harmony with her wonderful sanctity and preeminent dignity as Mother of God. . . .

Accordingly, the Fathers have never ceased to call the Mother of God the lily among thorns, the land entirely intact, the Virgin undefiled, immaculate, ever blessed, and free from all contagion of sin, she from whom was formed the new Adam, the flawless, brightest, and most beautiful paradise of innocence, immortality and delights planted by God himself and protected against all the snares of the poisonous serpent, the incorruptible wood that the worm of sin had never corrupted, the fountain ever clear and sealed with the power of the Holy Spirit, the most holy temple, the treasure of immortality, the one and only daughter of life -- not of death -- the plant not of anger but of grace, through the singular providence of God growing ever green contrary to the common law, coming as it does from a corrupted and tainted root. . . .

To these praises they have added very noble words. Speaking of the conception of the Virgin, they testified that nature yielded to grace and, unable to go on, stood trembling. The Virgin Mother of God would not be conceived by Anna before grace would bear its fruits; it was proper that she be conceived as the first-born, by whom "the first-born of every creature" would be conceived. They testified, too, that the flesh of the Virgin, although derived from Adam, did not contract the stains of Adam, and that on this account, the most Blessed Virgin was the tabernacle created by God himself and formed by the Holy Spirit, truly a work in royal purple, adorned and woven with gold, which that new Beseleel made. They affirmed that the same Virgin is, and is deservedly, the first and especial work of God, escaping the fiery arrows of the evil one; that she is beautiful by nature and entirely free from all stain; that at her Immaculate Conception she came into the world all radiant like the dawn. For it was certainly not fitting that this vessel of election should be wounded by the common injuries, since she, differing so much from the others, had only nature in common with them, not sin. In fact, it was quite fitting that, as the Only-Begotten has a Father in heaven, whom the Seraphim extol as thrice holy, so he should have a Mother on earth who would never be without the splendor of holiness.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Hanukkah and the Light of Christ
The Rededication of the Temple and the Festival of Lights

Hanukkah begins this evening, December 1, 2010, at sundown (remembering that the Jewish day begins at sundown).

The Jewish Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) was instituted in the year 165 B.C. It is celebrated annually as a memorial of the rededication of the Temple with a new altar and purification of the sanctuary. Three years earlier, Antiochus Epiphanes had caused a pagan altar to be set up at the altar of burnt offerings in the Temple and sacrifices to be offered to his idol, called "Zeus Olympius."

The Maccabean revolt followed, led by Judas Maccabeus (Yehuda HaMakabi, "Judah the Hammer"). After many battles, the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Temple were recovered.

1 Maccabees 4:36-59
Judas Maccabeus and his brothers said, "Now that our enemies have been crushed, let us go up to purify the sanctuary and rededicate it." So the whole army assembled, and went up to Mount Zion. They found the sanctuary desolate, the altar desecrated, the gates burnt, weeds growing in the courts as in a forest or on some mountain, and the priests' chambers demolished.

Then they tore their clothes and made great lamentation; they sprinkled their heads with ashes and fell with their faces to the ground. And when the signal was given with trumpets, they cried out to Heaven.

Judas appointed men to attack those in the citadel, while he purified the sanctuary. He chose blameless priests, devoted to the law; these purified the sanctuary and carried away the stones of the Abomination to an unclean place.

They deliberated what ought to be done with the altar of holocausts that had been desecrated. The happy thought came to them to tear it down, lest it be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it; so they tore down the altar. They stored the stones in a suitable place on the temple hill, until a prophet should come and decide what to do with them.

Then they took uncut stones, according to the law, and built a new altar like the former one. They also repaired the sanctuary and the interior of the temple and purified the courts. They made new sacred vessels and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. Then they burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the lampstand, and these illuminated the temple. They also put loaves on the table and hung up curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken.

Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, that is, the month of Chislev, in the year one hundred and forty-eight, they arose and offered sacrifice according to the law on the new altar of holocausts that they had made. On the anniversary of the day on which the Gentiles had defiled it, on that very day it was reconsecrated with songs, harps, flutes, and cymbals. All the people prostrated themselves and adored and praised Heaven, who had given them success.

For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar and joyfully offered holocausts and sacrifices of deliverance and praise. They ornamented the facade of the temple with gold crowns and shields; they repaired the gates and the priests' chambers and furnished them with doors. There was great joy among the people now that the disgrace of the Gentiles was removed.

Then Judas and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness on the anniversary every year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Chislev. (see also 2 Macc 1:18-2:19; 10:1-8)
Hanukkah, from the Hebrew word for "dedication" or "consecration", is also known as the Festival of Lights due to a miracle that allowed the Eternal Light of the Temple to burn for eight days, even though there was only enough oil to last one day.

This miracle is recounted in the Talmud (Shabbat 2),
The rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, Hanukkah commences and lasts eight days, on which lamenting (in commemoration of the dead) and fasting are prohibited. When the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil that was found there. When the government of the House of Asmoneans prevailed and conquered them, oil was sought (to feed the holy lamp in the sanctuary) and only one vial was found with the seal of the high priest intact. The vial contained sufficient oil for one day only, but a miracle occurred, and it fed the holy lamp eight days in succession. These eight days were the following year established as days of good cheer, on which psalms of praise and acknowledgment (of God's wonders) were to be recited.
The Eternal Light of the Temple represented God's everlasting presence, just as the sanctuary lamp placed before the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament in Catholic churches is kept lit to indicate and honor the presence of Christ. In the synagogue, a perpetual lamp signifies the Lord's presence in the Torah, the Word of God.

Although a Jewish holiday -- one celebrated by Jesus -- Hanukkah can also be a time for Christians to remember that it is God Himself who is a Light that is everlasting and can never be extinguished. These days of rededication and the manifestation of God's eternal light remind us that evil will be defeated and, even if the evil has defiled the good, in the meantime, God cannot be defeated. His light is everlasting. More than light from oil, which runs out, His is the Eternal Light which cannot be extinguished. Thus, this is a time of hope.

It is fitting, then, that we observe this celebration of the Light as we await in Advent the birth and revelation to the world of the Light Incarnate -- God from God, Light from Light.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.