Friday, December 23, 2011

The Incarnation is more than the Nativity

Over the last few days, I have seen more than a few blog posts preparing us for the celebration of Christmas. This really is wonderful because Christmas is one of the great Feasts of the Church which celebrates the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. It is a reminder to the world that God the Son emptied Himself to become a man; and that He humbled Himself to suffer the death of the Cross (Phil 2:7-8).

As I have been reading the various blogs, I have noticed an interesting pattern i.e. when thinking about the Incarnation, many Protestants tend to focus solely on the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now, this is not altogether a bad thing because the Nativity is certainly one aspect (and an important one at that) of the Mystery of the Incarnation. But what I think our Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ miss is that before He was born in the stable in Bethlehem, He had already been God-Incarnate for nine months in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is what we mean when we profess in the Nicene Creed that the Son of God was made incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary.

Because they miss this fact, Protestants sadly also miss the fact that our Lord Jesus Christ took His flesh from the Blessed Virgin. Why do they miss this vital point? I’m not completely sure, but I think one possible answer is that they are so averse to the Apostolic truth of the Catholic understanding of Mary that they go to the extreme of relegating Our Lady to nothing more than a surrogate mother.

In other words, many Protestants miss the full import of the Mystery of the Incarnation because their focus is limited to the Feast of Christmas, to the exclusion of the Feast of the Annunciation.

Without Mary’s Fiat (“Let it Be”) there would be no Incarnation. As Blessed Mother Teresa reminds us: “No Mary, no Jesus”.  This is why God, in His Wisdom, gave to the Church the Feasts of the Annunciation and Christmas – so that we could learn the full Mystery of the Incarnation. Before Jesus gave Himself on the Cross of Calvary, He gave Himself as a poor helpless babe in a manger. And before that, He was a poor helpless babe in the womb of His Mother. But even this does not go to the heart of the scandal of the Incarnation.

The true depth of the scandal of the Incarnation is not just that God humbled Himself to become man. And it is not even that He lay completely helpless in the womb of Holy Mary for nine months. Rather, the depth of the scandal lies in the fact that the salvation of the entire human race hung upon the thread of Mary’s “Yes” to God.

That’s right! Whether we accept it or not, our salvation relied on Mary’s act of faith and obedience. But there’s more! Now, as then, our salvation continues to be reliant on the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Incarnation bears testimony to this fact. Just as a baby unwittingly relies on his mother for life, protection, and sustenance; so our Lord relied completely upon the Virgin Mary. As true followers of the Lord Jesus, we too are often unaware of just how much we rely on Our Blessed Mother for the graces necessary to bring us to eternal life.

Just as Mary was responsible for training our Lord in the right way (Prov 22:6); as our Mother, she also teaches us what it means to remain faithful followers of our Lord. If we listen to the direction of Our Lady, we will find that her instructions are always the same – “Do whatever He tells you” (Jn 2:5).

Sacred Scripture tells us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8). Logically, this means that if Christ came to the world through Mary, He will continue to come to the world through Mary. And on the flip side, if the world wants to come to Christ, it must also do so through Mary.  

Acknowledging this truth, may we confidently ask Mary to lead us to Jesus just as the Magi did; so that like the Magi we too can present ourselves as gifts of tribute to Him who is eternally King of Kings.

And finally, as we celebrate Christmas giving thanks to God for His great gift of grace, let us also remember to give thanks for His great gift of Mary “full of grace”.

May God richly bless you and yours this Christmas!

"Outside of Wedlock" Explained

In a recent blog, I made the comment that because of her acceptance of God’s will Mary was pregnant with Jesus “outside of wedlock”. Following a question from a friend and a discussion with another Catholic blogger, I thought that it would be pertinent to clarify exactly what I meant when I said that Jesus was conceived “outside of wedlock”.

I don’t claim to be a scholar on Ancient Jewish customs, so I may be wrong about this. In which case, I am more than happy to be corrected. In any event, whether I am right or wrong doesn’t really concern me too much. What really matters to me is that I remain faithful to the Church’s teachings, which includes the doctrine of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity.
So, without further ado, here is my understanding of the Ancient Jewish custom regarding marriage:
To the Jew, there was a difference between marriage and betrothal (or espousal); however, the difference was not the same as what we would consider the difference between engagement and marriage today. Rather, espousal was considered as a binding marriage - but there was still an aspect in which the marriage was not completely ratified. Following the period of espousal, there would be a wedding ceremony during which the marriage covenant was completely ratified. Up until the point of the ceremony, the espousal was still considered as a fully binding marriage - but not completely ratified.
This seems to fit with the Biblical record which says that Mary and St. Joseph were espoused rather than married (see Matt 1:18). If marriage and espousal were exactly the same, then surely Matt 1:18 would read that Mary was married to St. Joseph rather than espoused to him. Also, the Angel's words to St. Joseph in Matt 1:20 tell him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. This could imply that the full ratification of the marriage espousal still had to take place. Furthermore, if an espoused couple had conjugal relations before the full ratification of the marriage, it was considered as an act of unchastity.
Most people (unless they had specific light from the Holy Spirit) would naturally have thought that if Mary was pregnant, it was because she had had relations with a man. They would simply be putting two and two together (without knowing that the equation in actual fact was NOT “2+2”). It is also possible that there could have been those who knew that Jesus was not St. Joseph’s child. If this was the case, their assumption would have been that Jesus was another man’s child.
The Pharisees could have had either of the above options in mind in Jn 8:41 when they said that Jesus was an illegitimate child (or “born of fornication” according to the Douay-Rheims Version). However, my personal tendency is to lean towards the first option because even the people of Jesus’ hometown (Nazareth) presumed that He was the son of Joseph (see Mk 6:3). So, it seems that the Pharisees’ perception of Jesus being born illegitimately, or “of fornication” makes sense if conjugal relations during the betrothal period was considered as unchaste.
Now, I'm not sure exactly when Mary and St. Joseph had their marriage fully ratified. The Scriptures don't tell us. There may however be something within the Church's tradition that could answer the question. Either way, I'm at least certain that it was before Jesus' birth in Bethlehem because it is obvious that by this time they were living together.
It is in this sense that I mean Jesus was conceived "outside of wedlock". Mary and St. Joseph were married at the time of the Annunciation; but at the same time they weren’t completely married yet. I know it sounds strange, but it makes sense in my head...but, maybe that’s the problem...

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Model of Faith

Our parish priest made a wonderful observation at Mass today. During the introductory rite, he pointed out that as the time draws near for a baby to be born, all the attention is focussed on the mother.

With Christmas being only a week away, the Church’s focus is directed towards the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is why the Gospel reading for today is Lk 1:26-38 in which the Angel Gabriel announced to Our Lady that she would give birth to the Son of God.

In this passage of the Annunciation, we are reminded of Mary’s great faith when she says “Amen” to God’s word. But something that we often overlook is the depth of her faith when she said “Be it done to me according to thy word”. In saying “yes” to God, Mary was most likely aware that her obedience would open her up to ridicule. She was engaged to St. Joseph and now she was going to be pregnant with a child "outside of wedlock". Our Lord Jesus was subject to this same ridicule when the Pharisees accused Him of being a bastard son (see Jn 8:41).
The extent of the ridicule would have been compounded by the fact that Mary was a consecrated virgin (see Lk 1:34). Imagine the scandal of the Mary falling pregnant after having made the vow of perpetual virginity. It would be something like the scandal that would’ve been caused if Blessed Mother Teresa had been found to be pregnant.
So even before St. Simeon the Righteous uttered his words regarding Mary’s soul being pierced through by a sword (Lk 2:35), she would’ve started sharing in the ridicule and rejection that would later be suffered by our Lord Jesus Christ.
Such was the faith of our Most Blessed Mother. She showed herself to be God’s perfect daughter, the handmaid of the Lord. And this is why the Church honours her as the model of all believers. She was the first to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ – and her perfect faith is an example for us all to follow.
Perhaps one way that we could do this is by taking the time over this final week of Advent to follow the Church’s tradition of reciting the Angelus three times a day (at 6am, noon, and 6pm). By doing so, we would be reminding ourselves of her great faith, and asking for God to bless us with the same faith.

V. The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.
R. And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

V. Behold the handmaid of the Lord.
R. Be it done unto me according to thy word.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

V. And the Word was made flesh.
R. And dwelt among us.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

V. Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God.
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let us pray: Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, that we to whom the Incarnation of Christ Thy Son was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection; through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be world without end. AMEN.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Love Mary and you will love Jesus

Since my last blog a few weeks ago  I have been working my way through a book about St. Maximilian Kolbe entitled “For the Life of the World”. For most of us, St. Maximilian is known for his volunteering to take the place of another man who was sentenced to execution in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi Germany in 1941. But what many of us don’t realise is what it was that drove the Saint to make this great sacrifice of his life. [I certainly didn’t know myself until reading this book.]

For the Life of the World shows that it was St. Maximilian’s theology which drove him in his pursuit of following the Lord Jesus so completely that he ultimately gave his life as a ransom for someone else. Seeing the depth of St. Maximilian’s theology and how it TOTALLY transformed his life has given me a deeper realisation of how undeveloped my own theology is; and even in its shallowness, I realise that it hasn’t really begun to penetrate the depths of my own being. Reading this book has aroused in me a greater sense of my own unworthiness when I compare it to the lives of the Saints – who even themselves were “worthless servants doing only what they ought to have done” (Lk 17:10). [Of course, this is not a bad thing, because God has used it to challenge me in my walk with Him.]
There are two things that sum up the theology of St. Maximilian. They are (1) complete and utter consecration to Our Lady; and (2) uncompromising love of Our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament. The really interesting thing though is that St. Maximilian didn’t see these as two separate ideas at all; rather he saw that they were ultimately one and the same. He firmly believed that “consecration to Christ is not possible objectively without consecration to the Immaculate”. This is because “perfect devotion to Mary coincides with adoring love for Christ really present, in His divinity and in His humanity, under the Eucharistic species. To love Mary is the equivalent of loving and praising her Son, Jesus.”
That little phrase is so important that it bears repeating:

 “To love Mary is the equivalent of loving and praising her Son, Jesus”

Like St. Louis Marie De Montfort, St. Maximilian firmly believed that the surest way to Jesus is through Mary. So, if we want to be firm in our devotion to Our Lord, the best way to achieve this is by being completely consecrated to Our Lady who will ALWAYS lead us to Jesus.

In the life of St. Maximilian, he became so united with the Lord Jesus that, like our Lord, he was prepared to follow Him in giving his own life in an act of sacrifice for another. It was St. Maximilian’s reception of our Lord in Holy Communion with a thorough understanding of what takes place in Holy Communion that ultimately led him to offer himself in sacrifice.
St. Maximilian understood in a most profound way that the Eucharist is nothing less than the Sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ on Calvary made present for us; and it was precisely because of his love for the Lord’s Sacrifice made present in the Eucharist that St. Maximilian taught that love of the Eucharist is not genuine if it is not sacrificial. In other words, our love for the Lord Jesus Christ is measured by the extent of sacrifice for Him and others in our lives.

Thanks be to God, St. Maximilian loved our Lord to the utmost – leaving for us the example of what it really means to love our Lord Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament. Where did this love begin? It began with a totally consecrated love of and devotion to Our Lady.
Like St. Maximilian, may we learn to imitate him in devoting ourselves completely to the Blessed Virgin Mary because she will always teach us to “love Jesus with her heart.”

St. Maximilian Kolbe...pray for us.

NOTE: Quotes (or paraphrases) from the book are indicated above by the use of “inverted commas”.