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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!

Straight Talk

Monday, May 31st, 2010

I am truly blessed with many fond childhood memories. I had a loving father and mother and many other family members who cared deeply about me.

Even so, my dominant reality, at least during my school years, was that I was a fat kid. I was relentlessly teased, pushed around, and called names, and I felt powerless to do anything about it. By the time I hit adolescence, I was filled with rage, rebellion, and negative feelings about myself. In my late teens I finally started to get a handle on my weight, but for the past 30+ years I’ve considered myself in “recovery,” always in need of vigilance lest I return to the nightmarish girth of my youth.

I realize that homosexuality and obesity are two very different conditions, but there are some important points of similarity. For one thing, I know from experience how bullies on the playground (some of whom don’t change their stripes as adults) prey on kids who are different, so I can sympathize with those who have been mercilessly persecuted because of their not-so-hidden sexual identity struggles.

Leaving aside the bullies, there are several typical responses to the fat kid. Some disdainfully point out the obvious (“you’re fat”) and what should happen (“you need to lose 50 lbs.”), but through word and attitude communicate indifference (or worse) to the poor guy’s situation. On the other side of the spectrum, there are those who want to offer an easy way, who want to make the child feel good about being fat.

While my built-up defenses might have suggested otherwise, and I didn’t always respond favorably to constructive weight-loss suggestions, deep down I wanted to change. I appreciated efforts–even seemingly unsuccessful ones–to reach out to me. The people who cared most about me offered diets, changes in lifestyle, and fitness regimens to help me escape an unwanted condition. They offered a plan which typically involved hard work and discipline. Even more, they offered hope.

Homosexual persons need a similar message. [more]

Bible Basics

We all know about the dissent that has plagued the Church in recent decades, contributing mightily to the contemporary “crisis of faith.” Some point to problems in the revised liturgy–both in itself and, more credibly, in the way it’s been implemented. Others point to problems in moral theology ushered in by Fr. Charles Curran and his colleagues. But I think underneath this is a crisis in Scripture scholarship, which today has led to a certain agnosticism and skepticism about God’s inspired Word.

This is true when it comes to the Bible’s clear condemnation of homosexual activity. One frequently hears, for example, that contrary to Church teaching (cf. Catechism, no. 2357), the sin of Sodom was not homosexual activity but inhospitality. Of course, we also hear that Our Lord’s multiplication of loaves was not a miracle, but an important lesson on sharing.

Let’s look at just one of the several passages on homosexuality in the Bible:

“Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

First, note that there are actually two words in the Greek that are combined to form the word “homosexuals” in the above translation: malakoi (literally, “effeminate males who play the sexual role of females”) and arsenokoitai (literally, “males who take other males to bed”). Despite persistent attempts to relativize or explain away this passage, what St. Paul is saying here is beyond reasonable dispute, and it’s entirely consistent with other biblical passages on the subject and two millennia of Church teaching.

Second, St. Paul is writing here to baptized Christians, some of whom used to engage in one or more of these serious sins. Even though they have now been washed, they are still prone to commit these sins and, if they want to inherit the kingdom, they must not return to such sinful ways. (By the way, this is one of a host of passages that dispels the “once saved, always saved” error we often encounter today.)

So, those who engage in homosexual acts are expected to walk away from that lifestyle, and in fact people even in St. Paul’s time were apparently able to do it, with God’s grace. Surely it can be a long, difficult road that can at times involve relapse, but contrary to the modern line that some people are born that way and unable to restrain themselves, it is indeed possible and necessary to decisively turn away from sinful lifestyles.

Finally, there are many sins listed in this passage. While we might not experience predominant same-sex attractions ourselves, we are inclined to a host of other sins, and for ourselves eliminating those sinful areas of our lives has to be the first priority.

Still, there is good reason to single out homosexuality for special mention. While many forms of immoral conduct are rampant today, they are nonetheless considered wrong and utterly to be avoided. We don’t celebrate “drunk driving month.” We’re not required to give our employees sensitivity training so that they can be more understanding of the internal conflicts of adulterers. When we condemn corporate crime we’re not called “greedophobes.” We don’t congratulate sneak thieves who “come out of the closet.”

When it comes to homosexuality, though, we are getting bullied and tricked into moving from decriminalization to societal recognition and institutional legitimacy.

Uncommon Valor

Fundamentalism is a significant problem today, but for the most part, fundamentalists stand outside the Church waiting to pounce on the unwary. Contemporary apologists such as Karl Keating and Pat Madrid have done a terrific job of arming the faithful against such attacks and transforming them into fruitful opportunities for dialogue and evangelization.

Homosexuality poses a more internal threat. It has effectively scaled the ramparts of the Church castle. If we deny the deleterious effects of homosexuality on the institutional Church, we have stuck our heads in the sand. We need repentance, purification, and grace, and we need heroic leaders–clerical and lay–who are willing to take on this beast.

Sexual impurity, even among seemingly devout, practicing Catholics, has weakened our defenses and compromised our witness when it comes to any sexual morality issue. In particular, Internet pornography has made substantial inroads in our culture and is destroying families. I urge men who struggle in the area of sexual addiction to seek assistance today.

The National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People has reported, to no one’s surprise, that over 80 percent of the victims of clerical sex abuse were male, and of these the vast majority were postpubescent. While all categories and types of abuse are deplorable and tragic, the significant increase of homosexual activity involving young boys (and the accompanying episcopal misgovernance) beginning in the 1960s is what really turned this situation into a full-blown, front-page crisis.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to examine the complex causes of the scandal and offer possible remedies, though one obvious part of the solution would be not to accept seminary applicants who openly identify themselves as homosexual. Rather, the point is that the entire Church, beginning at the top, more than ever needs to be spiritually ready to proclaim the truth about human sexuality in the face of the ungodly push for same-sex unions.

Getting Personal

The Catholic Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15) and thus possesses the fullness of the truth. So, while other Christian communities have part of the truth (and often do more good with their portion of the truth than we do with the fullness), the strength of the Catholic perspective is that it’s inclusive; it captures the big picture. In the area of homosexuality, the Church doggedly insists upon a both-and: absolutely love the sinner, and absolutely hate the sin. One without the other misses the mark.

The vast majority of Christians surely affirm the need to love the sinner and the need for a compassionate approach. Without all the pastoral resources of the Church (especially Confession), however, the message can be a little strong on hating the sin, which is right, but incomplete. I think that’s an especially important consideration today. Try criticizing somebody’s work, or cooking, or opinion, without that person taking it, well, personally.

Homosexuals often define themselves–selling themselves short in the process–in terms of their sexual preference, so telling them that their conduct is objectively disordered and sinful, without all the pastoral charity the Church can muster, predictably isn’t going to go over well.

On the other hand, a significant segment of the Catholic Church (though not in her official teaching) has softened on the “hating the sin” part, buying into modern scholarship and rampant secularism and relativism that call into question the longstanding biblical and traditional condemnation of homosexual activity. Without that key aspect of the truth, loving the sinner loses its authentic, salvific meaning and degenerates into a spineless gospel of tolerance.

I remember a time as a young adult when I casually referred to myself as being fat. At the time I was a starving law student and the thinnest I’d ever been in my life. The person I was addressing said, “Leon, what are you talking about? You’re not fat.” It struck me then how deeply I associated myself with my tendency toward obesity, as though it would always define who I am.

Our society has largely lost its sense of the intrinsic worth of the human person, so we tend to define ourselves through external, secondary characteristics. That is never good, but it’s especially tragic when those with same-sex attractions define themselves as “gay.” Once they are so defined, they give up hope of ever being anything else, and so through force and illusion they strive to change their environment–including the laws of society–to accommodate their lifestyle.

In the face of this, we must be ambassadors of hope and mercy, not wimpy enablers. Woe to us if out of silence or misplaced tolerance we allow homosexual relationships to take further steps toward becoming the legal equivalent of marriage. As St. Paul urges, “do not be deceived” (1 Cor. 6:9).

The above is taken from an article published in the May-June 2004 issue of Lay Witness magazine. Back issues are archived here

St. Bernardine of Siena

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

 

Today the Church celebrates the feast day of St. Bernardine of Siena. As a child in Southern California, I never heard about St. Bernardine, though the nearby city of San Bernardino (my brother called it “San Ber-doo”) was named after him. I only later learned that this 15th-century Franciscan priest was quite a dynamic evangelist and preacher.

He is perhaps best known for fostering devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. His “MO” was to travel from city to city throughout all of Italy carrying a banner with the large letters “IHS” (more on that in a minute) [more]encircled by twelve golden rays surmounted by a cross.

I”ve always been curious about the “IHS,” which is found (thanks in large part to St. Bernardine) in many Catholic churches and on many religious items. There has been a certain amount of confusion on this. Some say it signifies “In hoc Signo vinces” (“In this Sign you will conquer,” referring to Constantine”s famous vision, with the nails on the emblem forming the “v”), while others say it”s the first letters of Jesus Hominum Salvator (“Jesus, Savior of Mankind”).

The most plausible and widely accepted interpretation that I”ve encountered is that it”s simply an abbreviated form of the name of Jesus, as it appears in Greek, The earliest recorded use of this monogram appears to be the eighth century.

Aside from all the history behind it, the important thing is that “IHS” has come to be recognized as a familiar symbol of the Holy Name of Jesus, a symbol that has been popularized over the past 500 years by Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits. May we recognize, especially in our use of language, the holiness of the name before which “every knee shall bend” (Phil. 2:10).

Let”s close with the prayer of the Church:

Father,
You gave Saint Bernardine a special love
for the holy name of Jesus.
By the help of his prayers,
may we always be alive with the spirit of Your love.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. +Amen.