4th Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Thinking abstractly is one of the ways we mark a child's cognitive maturity. Adults think in terms of general principles and concepts all the time. We use symbols, signs, metaphors, parables; concepts related to numbers, motion, time, space, etc. We learn to think abstractly partly b/c we need to think about the things of the world as they all relate to us and one to another. But there's a problem with abstract thinking when it comes to our lives in the Spirit. Ideas, concepts, principles are easily manipulated, undermined, and changed precisely b/c they often have no tangible referents in the physical world. The names of concrete things – books, keys, glasses – these are all meaningful b/c we can point to the thing and verify the name. However, terms like love, freedom, sin, health, goodness – all of these get matched and re-matched with their abstracted concepts, and it is nearly impossible to decide what they really mean b/c we can't check their meaning against concrete reality. This basic glitch in our humanity can cause problems with our relationship with God. Therefore, he sends His Son to us in the flesh, so that there can be no mistaking His meaning: Christ is the Father's mercy given flesh, blood, and bone.
We know that ours is not an abstracted faith. We do not offer our praise and thanksgiving to an idea or a concept. We don't pray to Peace or Justice or Truth or Goodness. Christ did not die on the cross as a symbol or a sign or a metaphor. I mean, who gets dressed on a Sunday, goes to church, and worships Being Itself? Who here has prayed to Existence or the Universe for a favor? As strange as it may sound, over the centuries, including the last few decades, many Catholic theologians, priests and bishops among them, have advocated exactly that. That we stop thinking of God in human terms. That we cease addressing God as “Father” and call Him “parent.” That we no longer say “Son of Man” but “Child of Humanity.” That we refer to the kingdom as “the community.” Besides being horribly clumsy and just plain silly, these attempts at changing the language are also attempts to redefine the truth of the faith. And it's nothing new. Early heresies in the church denied the divinity of Christ. Some denied his humanity. Still others taught that he was just an illusion, not real at all. What they all had in common was their denial of the apostolic faith, specifically, the Church's teaching on the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity – Christ Jesus, who's birth – who's birth – we celebrate next Sunday!
St. Matthew couldn't make the point any clearer, so he quotes the prophet, Isaiah, this evening, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “'God is with us.'” Emmanuel. God is with us. Here with us. Right here among us. As a man. As a divine person with both a divine nature and a human nature. Like us in every way except sin. Concepts do not weep. Ideas do not eat flame-broiled fish. Abstract nouns do not die covered in blood on a cross. Emmanuel, God-is-with-us, was flesh and blood and bone so that we might have a saving friendship with a man, a real person. So that our eternal lives will not be left in the ever-shifting definitions of culture or popular opinion or corrupted power. We eat real bread and drink real wine. We light real candles with real fire. We come together shoulder to shoulder and hear real music and sing real hymns. Our worship is real, concrete, and makes use of the ordinary things of the ordinary world. And by the invocation of the Holy Spirit all of these, all of us are taken up and made into a holy sacrifice for the salvation of the world. This is the Father's mercy made manifest.
God-is-with-us. Emmanuel. Christ Jesus. Both God and man. Born in the flesh and risen in the flesh and set to return again in the flesh. We wait for him during Advent b/c flesh and bone needs time to come together. To gestate. To grow and take full form. If Christ were merely a notion, an idea, then there would be no need for us to wait. Ideas are easy to conjure up. We could all stay at home, synchronize our clocks for 6.00pm, and just think about Jesus for an hour or so. We could think about Peace and Joy and Happiness. No need to get out in this messy weather. But our Father wants real communion for us in real time. This is why we celebrate His son's birth into the world. To reset our faith in Him. To remember our hope from Him. And to reinforce our love for Him. Joseph welcomes the pregnant Mary into his home b/c he knows that she carries the living Word of the Father. We too carry the living Word into the world. We're not always welcomed. But we have said Yes to the Spirit. And there is nothing else for us to do but to show the world God's mercy and love. In thought, word, and deed. . .to be the body and blood of Christ in sacrifice for the whole world.
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