Archive for December, 2011

 

The Amazing Love of Christmas

Monday, December 19th, 2011

“For the Son of God became man so that man could become like God.”  These powerful words of St. Athanasius reveal the reality of the Incarnation of Christ and the truth of the Christmas event.   Christ’s Incarnation and entrance into our humanity reveals a divine love that is beyond our imagination.   God who so loved us became one of us in all ways but sin so that we can once again know and experience the love of the Father and also come to know our great dignity and worth in the eyes of our Creator.

The tiny infant born in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago is the most extraordinary and defining moment in human history.  With the birth of the Christ-child, the human family and the human experience would never again be the same.   For on that cold and peaceful night, God and humanity are once again forever joined in an inseparable union of the human and divine in the Person of Jesus Christ.   To gaze into the eyes of the holy Infant is to gaze into the eyes of our loving Father who’s unconditional love was pledged to us in creation, offered over and over to us in the covenants of old, and is now permanently and fully revealed to us through Christ.

For in the Incarnation, Jesus once again fully reveals God to man; he is the complete and total revelation of the Father and is the revelation and restoration to man of that great divine love that created him, and that merciful divine love that has set out to redeem all of humanity from slavery to sin and brings all men back into communion with God.  Pope John Paul II speaks of this “divine dimension” of the Incarnation, and what Jesus as the Son of God comes to reveal about the Father and his love:

 

The God of creation is revealed as the God of redemption, as the God who is “faithful to himself,” and faithful to his love for man and the world, which he revealed on the day of creation. His is a love that does not draw back before anything that justice requires in him. Therefore “for our sake (God) made him (the Son) to be sin who knew no sin.” If he “made to be sin” him who was without any sin whatever, it was to reveal the love that is always greater than the whole of creation, the love that is he himself, since “God is love.” Above all, love is greater than sin, than weakness, than the “futility of creation”; it is stronger than death; it is a love always ready to raise up and forgive, always ready to go to meet the prodigal son, always looking for “the revealing of the sons of God,” who are called to the glory that is to be revealed.” This revelation of love is also described as mercy; and in man”s history this revelation of love and mercy has taken a form and a name: that of Jesus Christ.   (Encyclical Letter The Redeemer of Man, 24)

 

 

It is also through this union of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ where God fully reveals man to himself.  Through the Incarnation, Christ enters human history as the one and unique man who is not only the perfect reflection of the Father, but also shows each and every person his or her dignity and destiny as a son or daughter of God. God’s love and mercy for us is so great and profound that he clothes himself with our humanity and all that it entails in order to redeem and restore our human nature.  Jesus reveals to man his divine likeness that had been disfigured by sin.  He is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” who communicates to us though his words and deeds the fullness of life for which man was created and to which he is called.  As the Second Vatican Council states:

 

The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a type of him who was to come (Rom 5:14), Christ the Lord. Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.  He who is “the image of the invisible God” (CoI 1:15), is himself the perfect man who has restored in the children of Adam that likeness to God which had been disfigured ever since the first sin. Human nature, by the very fact that it was assumed, not absorbed, in him, has been raised in us also to a dignity beyond compare. For, by his Incarnation, he, the son of God, in a certain way united himself with each man. He worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human Will, and with a human heart he loved. Born of the Virgin Mary, he has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things except sin.  (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 22)

 

Therefore, through the Incarnation, Christ was fully human, and through his humanity united himself with each and every person in all times, places, cultures, and circumstances.  By fully assuming our human nature and living a truly human life, Jesus redeems and restores each and every aspect of human nature and existence.  The Incarnation of Christ first revealed at the Annunciation and seen in its fullness at Christmas reveals the incredible gift and dignity of each and every human being at every stage of existence.   For Christ redeemed the human family from the first moment of conception to the last moments of death.   Christ, the Son of God made man reveals once again the image and likeness in which we are all created and the profound amazement of God towards each and every person.  This is the Good News of Christmas:  we are no longer lost to sin, but are now forever joined to Christ who comes to heal and restore our humanity! This is the “human dimension” of the mystery of the Incarnation.  As John Paul II powerfully states:

 

This, as has already been said, is why Christ the Redeemer “fully reveals man to himself.” If we may use the expression, this is the human dimension of the mystery of the Redemption. In this dimension man finds again the greatness, dignity and value that belong to his humanity…The man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly–and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being–he must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter into him with all his own self, he must “appropriate” and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself. If this profound process takes place within him, he then bears fruit not only of adoration of God but also of deep wonder at himself. How precious must man be in the eyes of the Creator, if he “gained so great a Redeemer,” and if God “gave his only Son” in order that man “should not perish but have eternal life.” (The Redeemer of Man, 25)

 

Therefore, as we once again celebrate the season of Christmas, may we contemplate anew the great love of God revealed in the holy face of the Infant born that night in Bethlehem and never cease to be amazed not only of God’s great love for us, but by the gift and dignity of every person who bears within them the image and likeness of God.  May we also continue to work tirelessly as people of faith, hope, and love, to uphold and defend from the moment of conception to natural death the gift and dignity of each and every human being who has indeed been joined to Christ through the great mystery of the Incarnation.  Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year!

Hail, Full of Grace!

Monday, December 5th, 2011

On December 8th, we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. However, if you ask people, including many Catholics, what the Immaculate Conception is, there is a good chance that they will tell you that it is the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary.  In fact, the Immaculate Conception is actually the conception of Mary.  The Immaculate Conception reveals to us that Mary was freed from the stain of original sin at the moment of her conception, and remained free from sin for her entire life.

It was intrinsic to God’s plan of salvation that Mary was created without original sin.  In the Book of Genesis chapter 3, we see how sin first entered the world through our first parents Adam and Eve.  Since Adam and Eve represented all of the human family, when they fell away from God, all of humanity fell away from him.  Original sin was then passed on to their children, and to their children’s children, all throughout human history.  Thus, when we are conceived and come into existence, we are born into a natural separation from God and an inclination toward sin that is called original sin.

However, God’s plan was to have his only Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity, assume a human nature so that as both God and man Jesus could accomplish the redemption of the human race.  One problem: God is in complete and total opposition to sin.  Anything sinful cannot even come into God’s presence without being purified.  How then would God the Son be able to intimately join himself with a fallen human nature?  This is where God’s plan for Mary comes in.  God chose her to be conceived without original sin so that she would be able to give Jesus a pure and sinless human nature.

Where do we as Catholics get this teaching on the Immaculate Conception of Mary?  First, it is in fact revealed implicitly in Scripture as an important part of God’s unfolding plan of salvation.

 

Genesis 3:15:  Let us first go to the book of Genesis where God is announcing for the first time his plan of salvation that will be accomplished through Christ:

 

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.”  (Gen 3:15)

 

It is important that we determine exactly who God is addressing and talking about.  God is speaking to the serpent and he says that the offspring of the woman will strike at his head.  Who is the only one who will strike at the head of the serpent who is Satan?  Jesus is the one who will come and strike at Satan’s head and destroy his power.  So if the offspring of the woman is Jesus, then the woman must be Mary.

Now God speaks of there being enmity between the serpent and the woman, and the serpent’s offspring and the woman’s offspring.  The offspring of Satan is sin, for it is sin that Satan desires to multiply and fill the earth.  So therefore, there is enmity between Mary/Jesus and Satan/sin.  What exactly does enmity mean?  Enmity means total and complete opposition.  If two things are in enmity with each other, they have nothing at all to do with one another; there is no cooperation or communion between the two whatsoever.  Consequently, both Jesus and Mary are completely opposed to Satan and sin.  They would have no cooperation or communion with Satan and sin whatsoever.  Mary is given the same absolute and perpetual opposition to Satan and sin as Jesus.

Therefore, it is necessary that Mary would not have a fallen nature, since any participation is original sin or actual sin would destroy the enmity with Satan and sin.   Thus, we see in the very first announcement of God’s plan of salvation his plan of Mary being totally free from sin so that Jesus would be able to assume a pure human nature.

 

Luke 1:28:  We see an even more explicit reference to the Immaculate Conception of Mary in Luke’s Gospel at the Annunciation when the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary to announce God’s plan of having her be the Mother of Jesus.  The Angel Gabriel’s greeting of Mary reveals her immaculate state.  His greeting properly translated is, “Hail, you who have been filled with grace.”  The Greek word kekaritomene is a perfect participle “have been filled.”   Mary has already been filled with God’s grace, for grace has already been infused into her at the moment of her conception.

Also notice that Mary is filled with grace.  Anytime we sin, even the smallest sin, we lose at least some of God’s grace.  That is the nature of sin.  Sin is a choice we make that rejects the grace he offers to us, which is his very life and love.  If Mary is filled with grace, then she would have been completely free from sin, as any sin, even the tiniest, would have caused her to be deprived of at least some grace.

Not only do we see the Immaculate Conception in Sacred Scripture, but it has also been constantly and clearly taught throughout Sacred Tradition from the earliest times of the Church:

 

St. Ambrose (d. 379): Mary is “free from all stain of sin.”

 

St. Severus, Bishop of Antioch (d. 538):  “She (Mary) formed part of the human race, and was of the same essence as we, although she was pure from all taint and immaculate…”

 

St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (d. 638):  “You (Mary) have found the grace which no one has received…No one has been pre-purified besides you.”

 

These are only a small sample of teachings that clearly show that the Immaculate Conception was a part of the Church’s belief from the very beginning.

Finally in 1854, Pope Pius IX infallibly proclaims the Immaculate Conception as a part of Divine Revelation and a dogma of the Church to be definitively held by all the faithful:

 

“We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine that holds that the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, at the instant of her conception, was preserved immune from all stain of sin, by a singular grace and privilege of the Omnipotent God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was revealed by God and must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.”

 

How exactly, then, did God preserve Mary from original sin?  Mary needed Christ to redeem her just as much as we all do.  She was redeemed by her Son’s death on the cross, just like all of us.  But how could Mary have been redeemed by Jesus’ death on the cross before Jesus was even born?

It is because God is eternal and transcendent, and therefore, he is not bound by either space or time.  Because he is outside of space and time, God sees all of time past, present, and future, right now.  It is like looking at a very long train from a helicopter.  The engines are creation, the caboose is the end of the world, and we are somewhere in between the two.  God is able to operate outside of time.  Therefore, he took the graces and merits of Jesus’ death on the cross and applied them backwards in time to the moment of Mary’s conception.  Thus, Mary was redeemed by Christ as we all are, but through a “singular grace and privilege of the Omnipotent God” she was not only redeemed but also completely preserved from original sin.

Even though Mary was preserved from original sin at the moment of her conception, she could have still chosen to sin because as a human being she had free will.  She could have said “no” to the Father at the Annunciation.  She could have also said “no” to the Father at the foot of the cross, where she surrendered her Son, and fallen into despair and cursed God.  However, Mary perfectly cooperated and surrendered herself to the great gift of grace that God had given her and lived the most extraordinary Christian life.  That is why Mary is the Model of Faith and the Model of the Church.  We are all called to cooperate with whatever graces God chooses to give us so that we humbly and lovingly walk whatever path he chooses to give to us.

May the Immaculate Heart of Mary continue to inspire us on our journey of faith, especially during this season of Advent, that we may surrender ourselves fully to God through the “obedience of faith” and become Christ’s instruments of hope and love.