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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Conning Ourselves Out of Christmas?


©2009, Randall A. Beeler
14 For while all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her course, 15 your Almighty word leaped down from heaven from your royal throne, as a fierce conqueror into the midst of the land of destruction (Wis 18, DRE)
4 But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent his Son, made of a woman, made under the law (Gal 4, DRE)
For it was a cave used as a stable by the mountaineers of the uplands about Bethlehem; who still drive their cattle into such holes and caverns at night. It was here that a homeless couple had crept underground with the cattle when the doors of the crowded caravansaries had been shut in their faces; and it was here beneath the very feet of the passers-by, in a cellar under the very floor of the world, that Jesus Christ was born.
(G. K. Chesterton, from The Everlasting Man)
God reveals Himself as Emmanuel, "God-with-us," at a time when the world appears to least need Him. Rome has conquered and united East and West. Humankind has reached its peak, as recounted in Virgil's Aeneid:
No foe, unpunish'd, in the fighting field
Shall dare thee, foot to foot, with sword and shield;
Much less in arms oppose thy matchless force,
When thy sharp spurs shall urge thy foaming horse. (VI)
But the vision given by Anchises to Aeneas is doomed to frustration: when Rome has all the earth, has attained all things, what then? Even as Aeneas, at the end of The Aeneid, fails the pax Romana, the Roman vision of peace and world order, and plunges his sword into Turnus (XII), so Rome wins the world only to find that the world is not enough:
25 For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world and lose himself and cast away himself? (Lk 9:25)
Christ comes in "the fullness of time"—the nick of time, the time when the world is most tired of itself, even before it knows it is tired of itself. Herod and all Jerusalem tremble, Magi trek from far reaches, Caesar tries to make his world account for itself in a massive census. At the height of its business, activity, and initiative, the world cannot pause itself.

Christ pauses us, and the heavens follow:

O ye beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.
("It Came Upon A Midnight Clear")

Even now, though, we hasten away Christ. Already we see Christmas trees, still green, heaped with the garbage on trash day. The stores display Super Bowl snacks, Valentine's Day candy, and Presidents Day regalia on the shelves. Accountants are braced to tabulate taxes and the first-quarter retail let-down. The Christmas is fairy tale is quaint, the world tells us, but we must get back to the real world of grind, grunt, and groan.

The Church celebrates Candlemas, on February 2nd, as the close of the Christmas Season; it marks the day on which Mary, according to the Law, makes a sacrifice at the Temple, for Her purification (Lk 2:22-24). The world trades Simeon's blessing (Lk 2:34) for Groundhog Day, desperately hoping that we can cheat Winter out of its six-weeks reign. Like Bill Murray's character (Phil Conners) in the movie, Groundhog Day, we despair that our lives are an endless repetition of gaining the world, gaining the world, gaining the world … only to lose our very souls.

We are Phil Conners—we love (philo) to "con" ourselves into trying to conquer the cold of the death, the Winter of the world: if we just try it again, just one more time, we'll get it right.

Thank God that the Christ Child waits for us. Every day—not just Christmas Day—the shepherds and kings step out of their rutted paths to pause at a wonder. What God does once, God does forever, for God is eternal. Therefore, as His Resurrection is eternal, so is His Incarnation eternal.

At each Daily Mass, the Church witnesses this reality to the world; as we kneel at the Consecration, as we step forward to receive the Eucharist, we again receive the Christ Child. Every day is Christmas, and every human heart is the Manger. Christmas never ends.

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
("O Little Town of Bethlehem")


Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Merciful Let-Down of Christmas

©2009, Randall A. Beeler

At the end of the Book of Job, Job keeps silence.

And for good reason—God appears.

Then Job answered the Lord, and said: 2 I know that you can do all things, and no thought is hid from you. 3 Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore I have spoken unwisely, and things that above measure exceeded my knowledge … 5 With the hearing of the ear, I have heard you, but now my eye sees you. 6 Therefore I reprehend myself, and do penance in dust and ashes. (Job 42, DRE)
Throughout Job's trials, in the face of the self-justifying counsel of his friends, Job proclaims that, only when God shows Himself, will anyone be justified:
25 For I know that my Redeemer lives, and in the last day I shall rise out of the earth. 26 And I shall be clothed again with my skin, and in my flesh I shall see my God. 27 Whom I myself shall see, and my eyes shall behold, and not another: this my hope is laid up in my bosom. 28 Why then do you say now: Let us persecute him, and let us find occasion of word against him? 29 Flee then from the face of the sword, for the sword is the revenger of iniquities: and know that there is a judgment. (Job 19, DRE)
The Christmas Eve silence that enfolds us in the snow-shrouded dells of our souls is Job's silence. We have called upon God to justify us.

And He comes.

But our attempts at self-justification deafen us to God's justice. We think we want the Peace that passeth all understanding, but Jesus warns us that He comes "not to send peace, but the sword" (Matt 10:34, DRE). We hurry about during Advent, preparing and spending and saving and meeting and greeting to make everything just right for that Christmas Day moment of peace … that always seems to elude us.

Then comes the let-down. We are spent and wonder why we lack the "Christmas spirit." Our old hurts and grievances spring up and, like Job bathed in Satan's outpoured bowls of grief, we are riddled with the sores of our existence, gasping, and wondering why God allows this sword.

Mercy.

Underneath the palace of Herod is the cavern stable where Jesus is born. Under the counting eyes of Caesar, the Father counts us worthy enough, amid the dung of the stable, for His Son to take "the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man" (Phil 2:7b, DRE).

Like Job, we think we can truly see and proclaim justice. Oh, yes, we have been made to thirst for justice, but when justice comes, we must be hushed to silence in order to see Divine Mercy.

Christmas is a let-down: God lets Himself down into our Mangers, amidst our ox-ishness, ass-ishness, and mis-shepherded ways. Are we surprised, then, that we feel this let down?

We must be so let down … in order to lay down our defenses.

And it came to pass when the king sat in his house, and the Lord had given him rest on every side from all his enemies, 2 he said to Nathan the prophet: Do you see that I dwell in a house of cedar, and the ark of God is lodged within skins? … 4 But it came to pass that night, that the word of the Lord came to Nathan, saying: 5 Go, and say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Shall you build me a house to dwell in? the Lord will make you a house … 12 I will raise up your seed after you, which shall proceed out of the bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house to my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom fore ever.(2Sam 7, DRE)
The Lord does build the house—a stable—deep enough in the countryside that only the shepherds can listen for that coming.

So we come this Christmas …

… stilled by a silence that we did not catch the still small voice of …

… mercifully let down by our own noisy efforts to justify ourselves and our idea of Christmas, God, the world, and ourselves …

… let down by God's letting down of Himself, in the midst of our attempts to lift ourselves up.

No, no, He says. Kneel down. I will build the house, out of your clay and straw. You cannot lift yourself up to Me. I give you Myself. I have always given Myself to you. Listen. You can hear My heart beat.

Our God has His own heartbeat.

He is the Cornerstone we would-be builders rejected.

Our protests have been so loud, we have not heard Him. But it is Christmas. Now we see Him.
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in his hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What We Hope for in Advent: The Tearing of the Veil

©2009,  Randall A. Beeler
50 And Jesus again crying with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost 51 And behold the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top even to the bottom (Matt 27, DRE)
The Church proclaims that our salvation begins with the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25th. With Mary's "Be it done to me according to your word" (Lk 1:38a, DRE), our salvation is upon us. No wonder, then, that Jesus so often preaches that the "Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" (Matt 4:17, DRE). He is the Kingdom of Heaven; His entire life, from the moment of His conception to His ascension is our salvation. The Resurrection carries such import because it is the Good News that what the Son of God does once, He has always and will always do. Thus, His entire life is one cloth, without beginning and without end:  He rises from the dead and returns to the right hand of the Father because He reveals that this is Who God has always been.

We might then puzzle over why we celebrate His birth. After all, is not the real paydirt at the foot of the Cross or on the doorstep of the empty tomb? Why the dirt of a cavern stable in Bethlehem?

Bethlehem is where the veil is torn.

Being the very Body of the resurrected Christ in the world and for the world, the Church celebrates the drama of the Christ by stretching the garment across the cycles of the year. Think it no accident that the Annunciation is celebrated on the heels of the Spring Equinox, when the day and night are balanced, and the light is waxing stronger.*

Jesus comes in the "fullness of time" (Gal 4:4, DRE), when the world seemingly needs no salvation. But, as always, the light wanes, hopes fade, the harvest is over; perhaps this time the darkness will overcome the light.

So, at the Winter Solstice, when the light is at its dimmest, we see in the Manger that God has been with us all along—even as our hopes are fading, even as our brightest aspirations are snuffed out, even as our most furtive efforts are frozen in the frost.

What was announced to the Blessed Virgin, what was visited by Mary to Elizabeth, what was dreamt of by Saint Joseph, what was cradled by Simeon, and gifted by the Magi is, at Bethlehem, revealed to the world.

What pauses us at Christmas is that the veil is already torn.

It is a done deal. We cannot foresee how it will happen, but the child in the Manger is the substance of what we now know we were never crazy to hope for.

The siege has ended.

In tearing open presents at Christmas, we celebrate that the sin-imposed veil over man's embrace of God is torn as surely as the Christ's burial shroud lays in a useless heap in the empty tomb.

May your last days of Advent be filled with this substantial reason to hope.

[*Pax, please, my brothers and sisters in the Southern Hemisphere; the Church is telling a parable here, and the Church was birthed in the Northern Hemisphere. Like all parables, it must ultimately show itself to be only like the Reality it figures. Even in the Southern Hemisphere, the point of the parable is valid.]

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Unforgiveable Sin? Bah, Humbug!

©2009, Randall A. Beeler
31 Therefore I say to you: Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but the blasphemy of the Spirit shall not be forgiven. 32 And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him neither in this world, nor in the world to come.
(Matt 12, RHE)

Jesus offers these words in the presence of the Pharisees, who had just credited Satan for Christ's power to exorcise demons.

Jesus notes that blasphemy means to declare that God is something God is not. In this case, Jesus is referring to the Pharisees who are claiming that the authentic work of the Holy Spirit is itself demonic.

The Pharisees' practice of a works-based righteousness, in effect, asserts that they do not need God or his forgiveness—for they have already won their righteousness, through adherence to the Law. For them, the works of the Holy Spirit and the works of Satan are indeed indistinguishable (as well as negligible)—and this is exactly why Jesus admonishes them:

36 But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall render an account for it in the day of judgment. 37 For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned. (Matt 12, RHE)

Jesus is not saying that we can utter some word or commit some sin that God does not forgive.

God's forgiveness is already a reality, as evidenced by Jesus' healing of the blind-and-dumb man with the demon (cf. Matt 12, RHE). However, some of us (like the Pharisees) do not believe in His forgiveness—and disbelieve to the point of attributing it to a demonically untrustworthy source.

Simply put, then, if we so regard the Grace of God, how can he forgive us, who deny that forgiveness as necessary or efficacious in the first place?

Like a wrapped gift under a Christmas tree, God's forgiveness is a reality, waiting to be received and enjoyed. Would any of us in our right minds leave unopened a present with our name on it?

The holiday season takes a toll, especially on those of us reliving old griefs, hurts, and losses. Amid the buying and selling frenzy, none of us are in our right minds. Little wonder, then, when we see Who offers this gift of forgiveness, we shrink back.

We know all too well that Christ heals our blindness and dumbness—and we shrink back from the challenges and self-sacrifice entailed by our new sight and loosed tongues. Those of us who do dare to break the ribbon on the box hardly do so with the fervor to which He calls us:

10 Now will I rise up, says the Lord: now will I be exalted, now will I lift up myself. 11 You shall conceive heat, you shall bring forth stubble: your breath as fire shall devour you. 12 And the people shall be as ashes after a fire, as a bundle of thorns they shall be burnt with fire. 13 Hear, you that are far off, what I have done, and you that are near know my strength. 14 The sinners in Sion are afraid, trembling has seized upon the hypocrites. Which of you can dwell with devouring fire? Which of you shall dwell with everlasting burnings? (Isa 33, DRE)
Which of us will live with the unquenchable flame, the burning desire for our God and Savior? C. S. Lewis once called this fire, "joy," the desire that is better to burn with than to have anything else in the whole world.

Isaiah tells us who will dwell with such devouring fire:
15 He that walks in justices, and speaks truth, that casts away avarice by oppression, and shakes his hands from all bribes, that stops his ears lest he hear blood, and shuts his eyes that he may see no evil. 16 He shall dwell on high, the fortifications of rocks shall be his highness: bread is given him, his waters are sure. 17 His eyes shall see the king in his beauty, they shall see the land far off. (Isa 33, DRE)
Advent and Christmas tell us how we will do so:
10 And the angel said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be to all the people: 11 For, this day is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. (Lk 2, RHE)
Forgiveness may be swaddled in a cavern stable in the hills of backwater Bethlehem. Herod's men may be swarming the city, stalking the Christ Child, Who will be exiled in Egypt for seven years and remain hidden for another 23 years in even more backwater Nazareth.

But Jesus the Christ will heal and preach and teach and give us His very Body and Blood on the Cross. When we receive the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion, every day is Christmas, Good Friday, and Resurrection Day. The gift is before us—let us dare to receive the Christ, today and every day.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Saint John of the Cross: Our Darkness Breathes God's Presence

©2009, Randall A. Beeler

We have often heard or spoken the phrase, "Without you, I am nothing."

Saint John of the Cross shows us that we cannot grasp the Truth of these words until our one true Beloved is absent:
The soul that is attached to anything however much good there may be in it, will not arrive at the liberty of divine union. For whether it be a strong wire rope or a slender and delicate thread that holds the bird, it matters not, if it really holds it fast; for, until the cord be broken the bird cannot fly.  (Saint John of the Cross)
Saint John is not denigrating the immanent goodness of created things but rather showing us the means by which God calls us to know God—via negativa.

We cannot know our utter contingency, our utter gratitude for the Beloved Who shapes and breathes out our very existence, until we undergo the dark night of the soul, as Saint John called it—the absence of God that bespeaks God's palpable presence.

When Blessed Mother Teresa's letters came to light, the media frenziedly declared that even Mother Teresa doubted the existence of God. But they misunderstood: Mother Teresa was not doubting at all; her forthright declaration of God's absence is her recognition of her own nothingness, for His absence reveals the God-shaped hole in all our hearts. Mother Teresa feels that ache on behalf of all those poor and destitute ones of the world; for their poverty is a living out of the absence she experiences. If the media reject such an understanding of our contingency, it is because they out-of-hand reject the poor in spirit, as well as in flesh.

We must be without You, Lord, to know we are nothing in ourselves. And in knowing our very nothingness, Lord, we see that we are made to know that only You fill our emptiness.

Oh, but we run from that void or seek to fill it with earthly comforts or outright deceptions. But they do not satisfy, and "Our hearts will be restless until we rest in Thee."

Even in nothingness, God pours forth his Loving Presence:
11 And I said: Perhaps darkness shall cover me: and night shall be my light in my pleasures. 12 But darkness shall not be dark to you, and night shall be light all the day: the darkness thereof, and the light thereof are alike to you. (Ps 139, DRE)
So, we experience darkness to see that even our darkness bears His Presence.

Saint John sketched a vision of the Crucifixion, which is pictured above. The perspective is that of the Father, looking down on the Son in agony, seemingly after Jesus has uttered "'Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani?' That is, 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?'" (Matt 27:46b, RHE)

In Saint John's very nothingness, he experiences what God simultaneously undergoes and witnesses on our behalf. Our nothingness is not to be run from but to be embraced, as Jesus embraces the Cross.

The Good News of our nothingness is that it is not in vain. God abhors a vacuum; in our nothingness, our endless created capacity to be filled by God is filled … with the breath of God:
9 And he said to me: Prophesy to the spirit, prophesy, O son of man, and say to the spirit: Thus says the Lord God: Come, spirit, from the four winds, and blow upon these slain, and let them live again. 10 And I prophesied as he had commanded me: and the spirit came into them, and they lived: and they stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army. (Ezek 37, DRE)
Just so, the utterly dead flesh of the Christ is breathed full of Resurrection. In Him, we are created anew. In Him, our nothingness is filled. In Him, we experience an ever-new creation, by the breath of His Spirit.

May the Spirit breathe all of us anew this Feast Day of Saint John of the Cross.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Jesus, Mary, & Joseph: At Home in the City

©2009, Randall A. Beeler

Today is the Feast of the Holy House of Loreto, celebrating the tradition that the house, in which the Holy Family lived in Nazareth, was angelically translated to the Italian city of Loreto, Italy, where it is now inside a basilica, one of the most visited shrines of the Blessed Virgin since the 13th century (and by means of which comes to us the Litany of Loreto).

Modern skeptics may scoff at the idea of angels driving a vast moving trunk, but the mere physical facts of the House of Loreto are beside the point. The Church writes in terms larger than the literal, more figurative than the facts, more right than the so-called real, more evident than the empirical.

Regardless of whether archaeologists can carbon date the origins of the House of the Holy Family, the House of Loreto proclaims a Truth that is bigger than the basilica that enwombs the home of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Who themselves are the earthly analog of the Holy Trinity.

"Emmanuel" is no mere label—it means "God with us," especially in the domestic details. In washing, sleeping, eating, sharing breaths in the Home of the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph mirror the self-giving, self-emptying, life-bearing love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is with us, right down to the dust bunnies in the corner or someone leaving the cap off the toothpaste tube.

The translation of the House of the Holy Family to little Loreto, demonstrates that God is at home with us in every city, every place—a message we desperately need to hear. For our cities are inhabited by "invisible men and women," people who "now and again appear on the front pages or on television screens, and are exploited to the last drop for as long as their news and image attract attention. This is a perverse mechanism which unfortunately we find difficult to resist. The city first hides people them exposes to the public, without pity or with false pity,"when the truth is that "each human story is a sacred story and calls for the greatest respect" (Pope Benedict).

God grants that respect, that dignity, by seeing us where we are, then raising the bet to be, in His turn, visible to us—in the grit of our very details:
"What does Mary say to the city" What does her presence call to mind?" … "She reminds that 'where sin increased, grace abounded all the more' ... She is the Immaculate Mother who tells the men and women of our time: do not be afraid."

"What need we have of this beautiful piece of news! … Every day, through newspapers, television and radio, evil is recounted, repeated, amplified, making us accustomed to the most terrible things, making us insensitive and, in some way, intoxicating us, because the negative is never fully purged and accumulates day after day. The heart becomes harder and thoughts become darker. For this reason, the city needs Mary who ... brings us hope even in the most difficult situations" …

"The city is made up of us all … Each of us contributes to its life and its moral climate, for good or for evil. The confine between good and evil passes through each of our hearts." Yet, "the mass media tend to make us feel as if we are spectators, as if evil only concerned others, and that certain things could never happen to us. Whereas we are all 'actors' and, in evil as in good, our behaviour has an effect on others."

After then asking Mary Immaculate to help us "rediscover and defend the profundity of human beings", the Pope paid homage to all those people who, "in silence ... strive to practice the evangelical law of love, which moves the world."  (Pope Benedict, at the Spanish Steps, laying a floral wreath at the feet of a statue of Mary on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception).
Every metropolis, every city, every town, every hamlet, every lone homestead has a House of Loreto that enwombs us even as it is enwombed by the Trinity Itself. For even the dust of our most humble dwellings and the rawness of our darkest alleys reveal that the light has shone forth into the darkness (cf. Jn 1:5): in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn breaks upon us who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (cf. Lk 1:78-79). Amen.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

San Juan Diego: Roses in the Wilderness

©2009, Randall A. Beeler

In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton notes a horrible historical fact about the Americas at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards:

the demons have really been in hiding since the coming of Christ on earth … But before Christendom, and especially outside Europe, this was not always so. In the ancient world the demons often wandered abroad like dragons. They could be positively and publicly enthroned as gods. Their enormous images could be set up in public temples in the centre of populous cities … some of the very highest civilizations of the world were the very places where the horns of Satan were exalted, not only to the stars but in the face of the sun. Take for example the Aztecs and American Indians of the ancient empires of Mexico and Peru … We know that the … priests of this … people worshipped … gods, who accepted as the nectar and ambrosia … incessant human sacrifice accompanied by horrible torments … to be drunk by great gods wearing goggling and grinning masks and called on in terror or torment by long cacophonous names that sound like laughter in hell.
In the wake of this hideous practice, the peoples of the Americas were subjected to the ravages of European diseases, against which they had no natural immunity; upwards of nine of every ten Meso-America succumbed to small pox, cholera, and other plagues. Thus, the Spaniards could conquer enormous empires with a small retinue of horsemen. And conquer and enslave they did, much against the efforts and protests of the Spanish Friars who desperately sought to save the indigenous peoples.

Thus, the children of the Americas, reeling from this triple decimation, could hardly hear the Gospel, could hardly respond to the Church.

Until San Juan Diego.

The story is well recounted in other places, but one detail is often left unmentioned. The Virgin Mother who appeared to San Juan Diego, who showered him and the Americas with roses, who left Her image indelibly painted on his tilma—Our Lady of Guadalupe—is one of the few apparitions of the Blessed Mother that is obviously … pregnant.

A Native-American woman. Pregnant.

A Native-American woman, crowned with rays and clothed in stars. Pregnant.

The demons who had once enjoyed human sacrifice could hardly have expected such a thing.

But their hatred of everything human blinds them to little San Juan Diego, who, like Frodo and Sam escaping Shelob, finds a back door behind the sentries of Mordor. And like those little-regarded halflings, San Juan Diego climbs a little-trodden path to the place where his little-regarded faith becomes the gate by which God, through Our Lady of Guadalupe, throws the demons into the Lake of Fire.

For it is a comfort that we little remember what the Americas were known for before Our Lady of Guadalupe.

For She is with child. She makes the wilderness a garden of roses—in the very wastelands where Satan once consumed the children of men.

Pray through the intercession of San Juan Diego today, his Feast. Pray for the Americas. Pray through the intercession of the One Who is with Child, the Christ Child, ever blossoming in our wildernesses, ever filling them with running streams, ever bearing the piercing sword of the thorns and emitting the fragrance of roses to us, Her children.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Crushing the Head of the Serpent

©2009, Randall A. Beeler

In touring a Presbyterian church that had been seized from its original Catholic faithful,  G. K. Chesterton noted that the Presbyterians opted for a curious solution to the problem of a courtyard statue of the Madonna and Child: objecting to the implicit veneration of Mary, they could not very well chisel away the Mary and have the Infant Jesus suspend Himself in the air; thus, they chiseled away the Christ Child.

Chesterton's point emphasizes what has been attributed, variantly, to Saints Athanasius and Gregory, as well as the Cappodocian Fathers: "What is not assumed cannot be redeemed."
The Fathers' point is central to the theory of atonement: Christ completely assumes the humanity He redeems. Like us in all things but sin, Christ is the spotless lamb (cf. 1Ptr 1:19), offered as us, in place of us:
But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. (Phil 2:7, RHE)
To then account for His humanity being free of sin, we today celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception—which is, after all, a proclamation about Jesus Christ's humanity rather than a "worship" of Mary.

To think that Christ could somehow assume humanity without being born, or to suppose that, being born of a bearer of original sin, he could avoid being tainted by original sin, is about as tenable as carving away the Madonna in the expectation that the Christ Child stone image will remain suspended in the air.

Mary is the bridge between our humanity and God's humanity.
It was through the Blessed Virgin Mary that Jesus came into the world, and it is also through her that he must reign in the world … Mary is the sealed fountain and the faithful spouse of the Holy Spirit where only he may enter. She is the sanctuary and resting-place of the Blessed Trinity where God dwells in greater and more divine splendour than anywhere else in the universe, not excluding his dwelling above the cherubim and seraphim. No creature, however pure, may enter there without being specially privileged. (Saint Louis de Montfort, from Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin)
And no one but the Christ exits there without being specially privileged.

Mary is the embodiment of the Father's special grace of an untainted humanity for His Son, that His Son might redeem our tainted humanity.

Nurtured in the amniotic fluid of Mary's womb, Christ washes us clean of sin. Nursed on Her breast, Christ feeds us the Bread of Life from His very Flesh and Blood and thereby leads us to the land of milk and honey. How can Mary be anything but immaculate?

The enemies of the Immaculate Conception are ultimately the enemies of God's lifting up the lowly and casting down the mighty from their thrones. For the Feast of the Immaculate Conception fills us hungry ones with good things (cf. Lk 1:46-55).

Mary crushes the head of the serpent (cf. Gen 3:15) because She reminds Satan that his pride is defeated by those whose spirits rejoice in God their Creator—those who do not call the work of their hands, "god":
And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to your word. (Lk 1:38, RHE)
Wherever Mary has appeared, She has come to the poor and lowly—at LaVang, at Fatima, at Lourdes, at Guadalupe.

"Guadalupe" means "guardian against the wolves." Our Lady of Guadalupe is the Patroness of the Americas, and the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is the Patronal Feast of the United States.

May our nation and our world be guarded from the wolf. May we dare to be poor and lowly. May we pray to come to Christ through the Vessel by Which He comes to us.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Saint Nicholas Prays for Us Little Ones

Saint Nicholas Prays for Us Little Ones

©2009, Randall A. Beeler

Today is the Feast of Saint Nicholas, one of the most revered and loved Saints in the East and West.

His Feast Day is particularly appropriate for Advent, for the miracles attributed to him all speak of hope renewed in the face of the worst peril. Three sailors caught at sea in the midst of storm see a vision of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, who guides them safely to port, in a manner eerily reminiscent of Christ calming the storm and walk the storm-tossed waters to his disciples (cf. Matt 14:24-33).

Thus, Saint Nicholas is the Patron of Sailors.

Three children are murdered by their father and, sickeningly, pickled in a barrel to hide the crime, a hideous and seemingly hopeless twisting of the familial relationship that we see too often played out in our storm-tossed world. Bishop Nicholas raises the pickled children from the dead and reveals the would-be murderer.

Thus, Saint Nicholas is the Patron of Children and Barrel-Makers—for he returns children and barrels to their morely homey and homely states.

Three Roman government officials are falsely accused and sentenced to death. Having seen Saint Nicholas' miracles, the three pagans invoke his name, and, on the night before the execution, Bishop Nicholas appears in a dream to the Emperor Constantine, bidding their release. Constantine comes to his senses and emancipates the death-row trio.

Thus, Saint Nicholas is the Patron of Prisoners (and the better sense of rulers, one hopes).

Three virgin daughters of a former nobleman in financial ruin are due, by his desperation, to be sold into prostitution because they have no dowry to enable their marriages. Into a bag (or a stocking), on three successive occasions, good Bishop Nicholas places a ball of gold and tosses it through their window, thereby redeeming them from poverty and prostitution.

Thus, Saint Nicholas is the Patron of Unmarried Women and of Pawnbrokers (pawn shops still display three golden balls outside their establishments as a vestigial veneration of the good Bishop).

In what initially seems an action uncharacteristic of so charitable a Saint, Nicholas is also known for slapping the heretic, Arius, at the Council of Nicea, as Arius attempted to promote the teaching that Christ was a created being and that the Trinity was a false doctrine. Stripped of his episcopacy and imprisoned for the deed, Nicholas is visited by the Virgin Mary who also visits the powers-that-be to reinstate him to his office.

Thus we see how Nicholas is the Patron of all the persons noted above and of numerous others: for Arianism was the creed of the elite, the final-gasp of paganism and fatalism in response to the Good News that Christ is God and has become one of us, so that no man, no woman, no child, no mater how poor or spit upon by the world lacks the divine inheritance of the Incarnation and the Redemption purchased by the flesh and blood of the God Who became man to die for us.

Each miracle of Saint Nicholas slaps in the face the elitism and fatalism of the world; his rescue of the poor and the helpless is the living out of the Gospel that the Arians sought to squash:

And when the Son of man shall come in his majesty, and all the angels with him, then shall he sit upon the seat of his majesty. 32 And all nations shall be gathered together before him: and he shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats: 33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left. 34 Then shall the king say to them that shall be on his right hand: Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in: 36 Naked, and you covered me: sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me. 37 Then shall the just answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry and fed thee: thirsty and gave thee drink? 38 Or when did we see thee a stranger and took thee in? Or naked and covered thee? 39 Or when did we see thee sick or in prison and came to thee? 40 And the king answering shall say to them: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me. (Matt 25:31-40, RHE)
Arianism was the status quo that reared its ugly head in a world turned upside-down by the Christian Revelation of Emmanuel, which "God-With-Us" rebukes the rich, the worldly, the powerful whose very lives (and policies) dictate that God is with only those who have made themselves, who have the goods of the world in their hands and the levers of state at their command. Bow down and worship the way of the world; "'Look on my works and … despair!'" (Shelly, "Ozymandius")

Saint Nicholas will not.

Even if the children are murdered and embalmed in chemicals (like we do today with the unborn). Even if we sell away our daughters to a false vision of womanhood that would prostitute them to the powers of evil. Even if we imprison the innocent and crush the freedoms and rights of the human person. Even if our culture is adrift amid the storms of the age.

Crozier in hand, Saint Nicholas strikes back, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, on behalf of all that is decent, all that is down-to-earth, all that is the dignity of the human person as revealed in the straw of the manger and the cries of the newborn infant Whom Herod sought to snuff out.

With his fleshy slap, Nicholas reminds Arius—and us—that we are the same flesh that God takes as His own. That, despite the finery of princes and the convoluted heresies of the self-deluded academics, every pauper is a child of the Prince, the King, the One True God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So, today, let us put out our shoes—not just children—but all of us. In those humble containers that keep us in contact with the soil of our world, let us find and enjoy the sweetness of our current lot in life.

We have everything to hope for this Advent.

O blessed Nicholas,
show compassion to me who fall down praying to thee;
and enlighten the eyes of my soul, O wise one,
that I may clearly behold the Light-Giver and Compassionate One.
The truth of things revealed thee to thy flock as a rule of faith,
an icon of meekness and a teacher of temperance;
therefore, thou hast achieved the heights by humility, riches by poverty.
O Father and Hierarch Nicholas,
intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved. Amen.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Advent: Awaiting Something for Our Weakness

Advent: Awaiting Something for Our Weakness

©2009, Randall A. Beeler
He became man who was God, by receiving what He was not, not by losing what He was: so God became man. There you have something for your weakness, something for your perfection. Let Christ raise you by that which is man, lead you by that which is God-man, and guide you through to that which is God. (Saint Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John XXIII, 6)

O ye beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.
(
Edmund Hamilton Sears,
from "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear," 1849)

The skeptics among us will note that, archaeologically speaking, Christ most probably was born in May—not in December, during the Yuletide Season (which, when He was born, was most emphatically not the Yuletide Season).

But such quibbling about the mere "facts" of the situation miss the point. So why does the Church choose to celebrate the Incarnation at a time of the year that does not correspond to the facts of Christ's birth? We celebrate Christmas and the Incarnation at the Winter Solstice precisely because of what the Incarnation is: the blazing of God's light, the shining of His Presence in time that sparks the blaze of eternity through all times.

Incarnation is how God ends our darkness:
The Church witnesses to the world the Good News of the Birth of Christ by celebrating the Incarnation at the time of year in which the days are the shortest and the nights the longest, days which set the pagan imagination trembling with the thought that the Sun would not return and endless night would reign.

Indeed, our capacity to sin and stumble sometimes makes us think that we have no remedy, that we will always be darkened, that our shadows will snuff out our candled souls.

Christ comes on the coldest, longest, darkest night of the soul to shed light on our birthright: as He is the Light shone forth in the darkness that the darkness comprehends not, so we are little Christs, spoken by God as shining words against the darkness, and en masse, as Christ's resurrected Body, the Church, we shine so brightly that even the gates of hell cannot prevail against our assault.

Take heart this Advent! Christmas is no mistake, nor superstition, nor one "holiday" among others. It is the Day of Our Holiness, the Day that God shines forth in the darkness to reveal to us beneath life's crushing load, who toil along the climbing way, that we are made by Him, redeemed by Him, and resurrected by Him to be His light against the darkness.

We do not wait for a mere holiday sale. We do not wait merely for a Christmas morning or another party or a few days off. We await the full play of the Light of God throughout the mystery of history. We await our fulfillment in Him. We rejoice in this stillness, this waiting, this hope.

May you have a blessed Advent. 


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Confession & the Colloquy of the Heart


©2009, Randall A. Beeler
It was Captain Vere himself who of his own motion communicated the finding of the court to the prisoner; for that purpose going to the compartment where he was in custody and bidding the marine there to withdraw for the time. Beyond the communication of the sentence what took place at this interview was never known … But there is no telling the sacrament, seldom if in any case revealed to the gadding world, wherever under circumstances at all akin to those here attempted to be set forth, two of great Nature's nobler order embrace. There is privacy at the time, inviolable to the survivor, and holy oblivion, the sequel to each diviner magnanimity, providentially covers all at last. (Herman Melville, from Billy Budd, Chapter 23)
On the edge of eternity, at any given moment, each of us seeks the ultimate intimacy, the ultimate prayer partner, the colloquy beyond words.

I love teaching Herman Melville's Billy Budd because I always come to that moment in which I am privileged to tell my students what I myself first heard from my best and most memorable teacher, Dr. Eugene Curtsinger:
What occurs here between the condemned Billy and Captain Vere is left to our own hearts. Melville is a skilled craftsman. He knows that to vest a dialogue with utmost gravity is to make it secret and hidden, so that our own imaginations might people it with longings of our own hearts.
The words that pass between Vere and Billy are sacramental because they are hidden—but not hidden because they are sacramental, as some mistakenly think of the Sacrament of Penance. Confessionals are hid in fine and private places not because they are secretive but because they invite us deep into the heart of the matter, the heart of our matter:
The principal force that moves the human soul is love. The truth is that only one task is entrusted to each human being: learning to love sincerely, authentically and freely. But only at the school of God can this task be achieved and can man attain the end for which he was created. (Pope Benedict XVI, Wednesday Audience, 2 Dec 2009)
Confessionals are wood and stone and curtain analogs of the Tabernacle of the Heart. The Seal of the Confessional is not a bond of conspiracy between priest and penitent but a replication of a deeper and invisible reality that is more present than anything visible (and therefore like a thousand other sights that we readily dismiss).

A song by They Might Be Giants ("Where Your Eyes Don't Go") sums up a fear that haunts us:
Every jumbled pile of person has a thinking part that wonders
What the part that isn't thinking isn't thinking of
Should you worry when the skullhead is in front of you
Or is it worse because it's always waiting where your eyes don't go?
Where your eyes don't go a part of you is hovering
It's a nightmare that you'll never be discovering
The Confessional reminds us that we are missing nothing—except the nagging worry that we are not fastidious enough, not circumspect enough, not vigilant enough to self-monitor, to patrol ourselves, to really listen to ourselves and tell ourselves what we need to hear.

In his Confessions, Saint Augustine adapts the truism, "God knows us better than we know ourselves," with the truth that we know God better than we know ourselves (X, 37). Indeed, unbeknown to us, we talk with God better and more honestly than we do ourselves. The Confessional sacramentalizes the ever-present dialogue in our hearts between the self whom God knows better than we do and the God Whom we know better than we know ourselves:
our heart is made of flesh and when we love God, Who is Love, how can we not express our human feelings in this relationship with the Lord? . The Lord Himself, becoming man, chose to love us with a heart of flesh (Pope Benedict XVI, Wednesday Audience, 2 Dec 2009)
Captain Vere and Billy Budd meet in the hidden stateroom of the heart, and if we can thereby people and vividly voice that clandestine colloquy, we can do it so adeptly because that same deep dialogue is whispering all the time inside our own hearts, our God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—sharing with us.

Our eyes do not go there, nor do our ears, but God's very words in the Tabernacle of our hearts speak a love that pervades our entire existence:
The image of God present in man impels him towards resemblance; that is, towards an ever fuller identification between his will and the divine will. This perfection, which William [of St. Thierry] calls "unity of spirit," cannot be achieved through individual effort, . but by the action of the Holy Spirit which . purifies and . transforms into charity all the desire for love present in the human being. .In this way . man becomes by grace what God is by nature. (Pope Benedict XVI, Wednesday Audience, 2 Dec 2009)
Advent is a time of listening and waiting. And though we will not hear in this life any more of the Tabernacle talk than we do of the final conversation between Billy and Vere, we will nonetheless recognize and embrace our Dialogue Partner when Eternity dawns upon us. We will not merely "arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time" (Eliot, "Little Gidding")—we will see Him "face to face" and "know even as [we] are known" (1Cor 13:12, RHE):
I have lifted up my eyes to the mountains,
from whence help shall come to me.

My help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

May he not suffer thy foot to be moved:
neither let him slumber that keepeth thee.

Behold he shall neither slumber nor sleep, that keepeth Israel. (Ps 121:1-4, RHE)