24 December 2015

Love made Flesh. . .


Solemnity of the Lord's Nativity (Vigil)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Every religion in human history has its prophets, mystics, saints, avatars, bodhisattvas, miracle-workers, and gurus. By whatever name they are called, these human-divine combos serve the same general purpose: to bring the natural world of man into closer contact with the supernatural world of the divine. The idea seems to be that closer human contact with the divine will somehow “save” or “redeem” or “enlighten” the lost, the ignorant, and the just plain evil among us. Most religious traditions claim to be founded on revelation or some sort of mystical experience. Most have the expected accoutrements of worship: clergy, laity, sacred texts, prayer, temples/churches, vestments, etc. And most claim a certain exclusive access to universal truth and goodness. However, of all the religions currently practiced in the world, only one claims to follow an incarnated god; only one can credibly claim that its founder and central figure of worship walked among us a person, fully human and fully divine. We call the arrival this person in human history, “The Nativity of the Lord.” And it is this event that we remember and celebrate this evening. Once again, we welcome the Christ, Emmanuel, “God is with us.” 

For our welcome to be truly sincere, it's important that we understand—to the degree possible—who it is that we are welcoming among us. A good start on this understanding would be to identify who we are NOT welcoming. We are not welcoming a person who is half and half, half human and half divine. Nor is he man with a human body and divine soul. Nor is he really just a man with a divine mind; nor a god who has taken on the appearance of a man. Or, as the current theological fashion argues, an enlightened man who had evolved beyond being merely human. The Church has considered all of these possibilities and rejected them as heresy. In fact, all of these possibilities for understanding the nature of Christ were rejected in the year 451 A.D. by the Council of Chalcedon. For at least 1,561 years, the Church has taught and defended a single view on the nature of the Christ, the Chalcedonian Formula. This formula explains part of the Nicene Creed: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father. . .” Christ is consubstantial with the Father, meaning Christ and the Father are of the same substance, the identical divine nature. Thus, Emmanuel, “God is with us,” is the perfect name for Christ. 

Now, why in the world am I pestering you on Christmas Eve with a mini-lecture on christology? Well, here's why: the Chalcedonian Formula does more than simply define the true nature of Christ—tell us who Christ is. By telling us who Christ is, the formula also tells us Christ's purpose—what it is he came among us to do. And giving us these two bits of info about Christ helps us to welcome him with true sincerity. The Formula reveals that Jesus Christ is a divine person, the Son of God, with two natures: one human and one divine. By comparison, each one of us is a human person with just one nature, human. Because Christ is a divine person with both a divine and a human nature, he is uniquely placed in our salvation history to be the one (and the only one) to bring us into full union with God. Here's how the CCC puts it: “The Word became flesh to make us 'partakers of the divine nature'.” Then quoting St. Athanasius, “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God” (n. 460). So, when we welcome Christ among us at his Nativity, we also welcome among us our only means of attaining perfect union with our heavenly Father. 

Knowing all this, we might ask: what was preventing the possibility of perfect union before Christ's nativity? Simply put: sin; or rather, no perfect means of forgiving sin. Look at the gospel. Joseph is thinking about divorcing Mary b/c she's pregnant before they have consummated their betrothal. In a dream, an angel of the Lord visits Joseph and lays out for him exactly who it is that his wife is carrying in her womb. The angel says, “Joseph do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” Thus, we have the two natures of Christ: the divine from the H.S. and the human from Mary, herself immaculately conceived. The angel continues, “She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” The divine person of Christ is the means by which God's people are saved from their sins, the sins that prevent us from being in perfect union with the Father. Again, we not only welcome the birth of the Christ Child tonight, we also welcome the birth of the possibility of becoming a child of God as well. The first step along this path is to open your heart and mind to the H.S. and follow Mary's humble example, saying with her, “Let it be done to me according to your word.” 

This resounding “fiat” highlighted Mary in history like no other woman had ever been before or since. She has been known through the centuries by many exalted titles and she is known now by many more: God-bearer, Mother of God; Mater Dolorosa, Mater Gloriosa; Mediatrix of All Graces; and Queen of Heaven. Though all theologically sound and historically accurate, these titles tempt us to forget a vital fact. We must remember—especially on the eve of Christ's nativity—that Mary was a teenaged girl, a virgin betrothed to Joseph and placed at the center of a cosmic drama that brought to fulfillment some 5,000 yrs of God's plans for mankind. If we welcome among us tonight the birth of the Christ Child, then we must also gives our thanks to Mary for her faithfulness, her courage, and her strength in the face of what we can only imagine was a harrowing adventure, a truly frightening and rewarding journey toward perfection. She is the model for how the Church best responds to the Father's invitation to live with Him forever. And as such, she is also the model of each one of us as we choose and pursue the narrow path toward holiness. 

We give Emmanuel a sincere welcome. We give thanks to Mary. We offer the Father our praise and the H.S. an invitation. And as we continue our welcome, we also pray. What should we pray for on this Holy Night? The Chief Shepherd of the Church, Pope Benedict, urges us to pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, come to us! Enter within me, within my soul. Transform me. Renew me. Change me, change us all from stone and wood into living people, in whom your love is made present and the world is transformed. Amen.”

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20 December 2015

Waiting is not doing nothing. . .

NB. from 2012. . .visiting The Squirrels until after Christmas.

4th Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Through his prophet, Micah, the Lord God promises, “. . .from you [Bethlehem] shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel. . .He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the LORD. . .he shall be peace.” This promise was made almost 800 years before the birth of the Christ Child in Bethlehem. Between the making of this promise and the birth of Christ, eighteen generations of God's people waited and waited and waited for its fulfillment. And when the Lord God placed His only-begotten Son in the virginal womb of a teenaged Mary, and she bore him into the world as a squalling baby in a barn, who could blame God's people for their disappointment and their turning away to wait some more? Rulers are born to kings and queens. Strength comes from wealth. Peace is settled with a sword. Babies born to working class bumpkins from the sticks do not grow up to rule God's people. And so, the waiting continues. For those of us who see in the Christ Child a ruler of strength and peace, the wait is almost over. Just two days and our wait is over. Blessed are those who believe that what is spoken to them by the Lord will be fulfilled. Blessed are those who wait upon the Lord. 

Speaking strictly for myself, patience is not a virtue; it's more like a penance, a trial, or even a punishment. Being patient requires a level of “letting go” that I find extraordinarily difficult to master. Over the years, I've gotten better at enduring the obvious flaws of others. No one's perfect after all. Me included. But, of course, my own flaws never inconvenience anyone else. The truest test of patience ever invented by the Devil is called “Driving in New Orleans.” Second to this test is the one called “Parking in New Orleans.” Either one of these tests alone would wear a hole in the patience of the Virgin herself and both of them together would likely cause Jesus to return in the Apocalypse earlier than planned. Fortunately, for the sake of my holiness and humility, I am tested often enough to notice that patience in waiting can—sometimes—actually be virtue: the good habit of letting go and waiting upon the Lord. If Lent is that time before Easter when we are consigned to wait upon the Lord's resurrection, then Advent is our time to wait upon his birth. As Christians, our waiting is not polluted by impatience. We know he is coming. Rather, our patient waiting is flavored by anticipation. 

Blessed are those who believe that what is spoken to them by the Lord will be fulfilled. What has the Lord spoken to us? What word of His do we believe will be fulfilled? Through His prophet, Micah, He says, “. . .from you [Bethlehem] shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel. . .He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the Lord. . .he shall be peace.” He also says through Micah, “. . .the Lord will give [Israel] up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne. . .” The time between the delivery of this prophecy and its fulfillment in the delivery of the Christ Child by Mary is the Advent of Israel, that long season of waiting between hearing the good news of a future Messiah and his arrival among us. Eight hundred years of anticipation, eight hundred years of waiting and waiting. If hopeful anticipation spices the main event, then the birth of Christ was well-seasoned! However, we know that his arrival—his humble start—was a disappointment to most of those who had patiently stood by. Perhaps they had forgotten the last sentence of what the Lord had said to Micah about the coming of the Messiah, “He shall be peace.” What sort of king comes to deliver his people from oppression using a sword of peace? 

God's people waited for eight hundred years for the coming of the promised Messiah. Some—those who do not follow the Christ—wait still. And even though the Messiah has been born to the virgin as prophesied, and even though we who follow Christ no long wait for his arrival in history, we still wait for the advent of his universal peace. We don't need a recitation of recent global and domestic events to know that we are far from the peace promised by the birth of the Savior. If anything, violence and death seem to be taking the upper hand. It is not too much for us ask: how much more strain can civilization bear before it cracks and falls apart? When we ask questions like this, and when we expect answers in concrete terms (days, weeks, months), we tend to forget that as followers of the Prince of Peace our hope, the fulfillment of God's promise of peace, is not to be found on a watch or a calendar. It's not found in the workings of the State, the laboratory, the classroom, or the battlefield. Our hope, the fulfillment of God's promise of peace, rests solely in the kingdom Christ brought with him to that barn in Bethlehem, the same kingdom he will bring to completion when he comes again. “He shall be peace,” and he is our peace until he comes again.

There's an obvious danger to this way of thinking. If we are simply waiting for the universal peace of Christ to arrive when he comes again, then we can be sorely tempted to adopt a “do-nothing” quietism; that is, we are poked and prodded by the sheer overwhelming horror of violence and death to stand aside and gamble our lives away on the off-chance that God will “do something” about this mess. So often we hear people ask after a disaster, “Where was God?” The assumption being that if God really existed or really cared, none of this horrible stuff would've happened. We waited on your help, Lord, and you never showed. Perhaps the most frustrating part of being a follower of Christ is knowing that help for our world is coming but that it did not arrive in time. Of course, help did arrive in time. He arrived 2,000 years ago as a child born in a barn. What we are waiting on now is our own growth in holiness, our own progress toward the righteousness that he made possible by his death and resurrection. If we want peace now, if we want help now, then we must be that help and that peace in his name. We cannot be both freed from our fallen nature by grace AND free from the consequences of that fallen nature. If we will be free to follow him in peace, then in peace we must follow His will and word. 

Just two days and our wait is over. Blessed are those who believe that what is spoken to them by the Lord will be fulfilled. Blessed are those who wait with anticipation upon the Lord. Elizabeth blesses Mary b/c Mary believed Gabriel's word to her. She says Yes to being the Mother of the Christ Child and comes down to us in the faith as the Blessed Virgin Mary. For an example of humility and peace, we need to look no further than the fervor with which this teenaged girl freely accepted the harrowing mission of bearing the Word made flesh into the world. As a good Jewish woman, Mary knows words of the prophets. She knows who it is she is carrying in her womb. She runs to Elizabeth in haste to greet her cousin, and all of her hopes are fulfilled when Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” With the birth of Christ 2,000 yrs ago and with our celebration of his Nativity in two days time, we too are blessed. We have seen the glory of God in the face of a child and what we saw there has freed us to await the coming of his peace.

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