Sunday, December 25, 2016

God Amid the Ruins: The "Wonder-full" Season of Christmas

A little more than fifty years ago, two American songwriters penned a lyric about the celebrations this time of year: hosting parties, visiting friends, roasting marshmallows, caroling in the snow. They later said that they wanted to capture in the song the spirit of festivity and frivolity that many feel around the holidays. The song was recorded a year later in 1963 by Andy Williams, and over the course of the last several decades, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” has become an enduring Christmas standard.

There certainly is much that’s wonderful about this time of year: visits with family and friends, holiday parties, gift-giving, special foods and traditions. But it should be said that Williams’ song takes a pretty optimistic view. Many people struggle to endure this time of year, whether it’s handling all of the hustle and bustle, or because of personal experiences and memories that are difficult for them. Even for those of us who enjoy Christmas generally may find ourselves struggling to be merry. Our lives are still complex and challenging, and while we value the chance to celebrate with loved ones, the problems that we face don’t simply disappear.

Even in our religious context, there is much about Christmas that is difficult to bear. The Nativity scene that we see in our churches and on our mantles seems peaceful… only if we forget that it is a depiction of a young couple forced to give birth to a son in squalid conditions and out amid the elements. The angels praise and the Magi come to pay respect to the newborn King… whose authority will be rejected by his own people and whose person will be tortured and executed by the worldly powers of the day. The feast of Christmas is quickly followed by those of St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents… reminders that the birth of Jesus led directly to the deaths of many others. 

  The Nativity (1892) by Gari Melchers

So what is the Good News of this day? If there is so much in ruins in the world in general and in our personal lives, where is the cause for joy that the Church tells us should be in our hearts this season? It’s not the consumerism and schmaltz that makes up so much of the modern “Christmas” mentality. It’s not the holiday parties and merrymaking and gift-giving that occupy our time. It’s not even the fact that we usually spend this time visiting with or at least communicating with the people important to us. Rather our Christmas joy is rooted in a sense in a recognition of our own faults and failings, in our brokenness and messiness as human beings, and that despite all of that, God entered into our reality – he desired to share it, despite our flaws, that he might transform us from within.

Vigil Mass:
The Gospel story we heard this evening is seemingly a strange one for the celebration of Christmas. We hear this long genealogy, with difficult names and even more obscure identities. But it is the testimony of the evangelist St. Matthew of how God’s covenant with his people – beginning with Abraham and continuing through the generations – is fulfilled in the coming of Christ. Despite the faithlessness of Israel, and the wickedness of many of the people whose names we heard, God did not rescind his promises. No, indeed, knowing well our need for salvation, he desired instead to become one with us, to reveal himself as God-with-us.

Mass During the Day: That plan, the scope of that divine design, is recounted in the beautiful words of the Gospel according to St. John. It is in many ways a summation of our entire faith – that the Word, the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, in and through whom God created all things, in the fullness of time took Flesh, not losing his divinity, but becoming fully man, so that he might be one with us, to reveal himself as God-with-us.

This is indeed Good News. Creation has been changed by the coming of Christ, and while the world often still seems dark and broken, we who believe can always point to this reality, the birth of Jesus, as a sign of God’s faithfulness, of his presence, of his continued love. If you find yourself happy this day, let it be for that reason, not for anything more superficial. If you find yourself unhappy, then let your heart find some comfort and hope in the love of a God who desires to enter into your unhappiness, to assure you of his love, and to deliver you from your sins and save you from all distress.

Friends, I propose that what Andy Williams first sang more than fifty years ago is true – it is the most wonderful time of the year, though not for the reasons he enumerated. Christmas is “wonder-full” – full of wonder – because it is a time when we recall again the deep love and abiding presence of a God who has come, and will come again, and who is with us at every moment in between. There is nothing in this life that is not made new by the birth of Jesus and through him, and with him, and in him, we are made new as well. 

May God grant you every grace in this season of joy!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Conflict Resolution: The Immaculate Conception of Mary

Every good story has a conflict. Think of a bestselling book, or a hit movie, or just an account that you might tell your friends over coffee. A story doesn’t engage us, doesn’t capture our attention unless it contains tension: something valuable at stake, some fundamental problem to be resolved. It can be epic or mundane, but there must always be a conflict for a story to revolve around.

The same is true for the story of our salvation. The 20th century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar titled his 5-part magnum opus the “Theo-Drama”, that is the story of the relationship between God and humanity throughout time. That story too has a conflict, a tension to be overcome. We heard the basics of it in the first reading from Genesis. Adam and Eve have done the one thing God had forbidden them to do, and having sinned their relationship with him has been changed. Not only must they leave Eden; nature itself, including our human nature, is changed by the introduction of sin into the world.

Traditionally, we say that the original sin of Adam and Eve had four effects on us: our intellects were darkened; our wills were weakened; and physical suffering and death – not originally a part of God’s plan – are made a part of our lives. These are not what God wished for us – they are rather the consequence of the choice of our first parents and indeed the choices we make through our own sinfulness. The tension of our story is that God created us for himself – we desire nothing so much as to be in eternal union with God – and yet our own sinful choices made that union impossible.

Or, at least, so it was thought. We’re just about at the midpoint of Advent, and in a few short weeks we will celebrate the day on which the answer to our conflict, the One who resolves our fundamental problem, was born into the world. Jesus is the protagonist in our Theo-Drama, the New Adam whose obedience to his Father undoes the sinful disobedience of our first parents and restores us to union with God. It is through him that God has chosen to bless us – in the words of the Letter to the Ephesians – before the foundation of the world, to be destined for adoption through Christ that we also might be made “sons and daughters” of God. Jesus doesn’t just restore what Adam and Eve took away, he gives us something far greater. He doesn’t open the gate back to Eden; he throws open the gates to heaven.

Gustave Moreau, Pietà (1854)

In every story, there is a moment when the protagonist takes decisive action, when he or she seeks to tackle the fundamental problem head on to resolve it. Today, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, we celebrate the very first moment when God acted through Jesus in history. It is not the conception of Jesus that we celebrate (that’s in March) but rather the conception of Mary, when God foresaw in his eternal wisdom Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and through the grace that comes from his Son’s obedience preserved Mary from the original sin of our first parents. God acted decisively not only to create a perfect, fitting vessel for his Son. He did so also to remind us that, like Mary, our human nature has been created for perfection, which is nothing short of total union with God.

Friends, if I might offer a bit of advice in these last few weeks of Advent, don’t sell yourself short on your role in the Theo-Drama. The story of God and humanity began with Adam and Eve, and reached its climax in the person of Jesus, but each of us has an important role to play it in as well. What God did for Mary, he desires to do for each of us; we need only submit our wills to be in accord with His, just as she did. Prepare for the coming of our Savior with a heart that yearns for nothing but to be with him, where every conflict is resolved, where every tear is wiped away. The great story has been written, and you have a part in it. How will you play it?